Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Microsoft shift only proves that "change" doesn't necessarily mean "progress"

When I worked for a temp agency, I was once sent for a week to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, to help a contractor move cabinets from one office and reinstall them in another building. Microsoft employees sure had life good, I could see: Refrigerators stocked with free soft drinks (I relieved them of a few dozen cans during my stay), and mall-sized lunch rooms with a huge selection of comestibles at dollar store prices. There were software shops where Microsoft products were sold at a fraction of retail value—practically free, given the money employees were paid, which of course, didn’t “trickle down” to temp workers like me.

After Microsoft went “public” in the 1980s, thousands of people who held sufficient stock in the company became millionaires in the next decade or so. I admit that initially I was one of those Apple snobs; my first experience with computers was in college, using the original one-piece Mac; I recall occasionally going to the computer lab just to play Asteroids on the tiny screen. After I graduated, I could only afford to use electronic keyboard devices that had tiny LCD screens that could fit a couple of sentences at a time. That changed when I acquired my first credit card, and that led to a frustrating period of buying and selling Macs, largely due to the fact that it was difficult to judge whether a particular model—specially a “low-end” model—could run software more than a year old, and Apple always kept the specifications of future products a state secret. Also a problem was the relative dearth of available software compared to Windows.

Things have changed since Apple switched to Intel processors, but that came too late for me, as I abandoned the Mac in 1998 after piling-up considerable debt replacing the latest now defunct machine (particularly after the introduction of the so-called PowerPC). It was always easier to judge the capability of an 86x Intel processor, and there was plenty of interesting software available (I have to admit that I mourn the loss of the After Dark screensavers, especially the Star Trek and Looney Tunes versions). I also have noted that Apple hardware continues to lag behind that of PCs, especially the latter which have Blue-ray drives, which require more memory and processor speed—and thus are more powerful for other applications. I’ve never regretted this switch.

Things have changed for Microsoft, however. It still makes a profit every quarter, but it has moved sharply away from making software programs and games for the PC platform. It is quite a shock for me not to see any software stores anywhere—just as it is that music and DVD-only retail stores have disappeared, thanks to digital downloads and the lack of interest by the latest generations in past cultural history, which in my opinion demonstrated far more creative talent than what is evident today. People are now tied to their “smart phones” as if it they are part of their anatomy, with no interest in learning anything beyond what is immediately available at their finger-tips. Doing actual “work”—like I’m doing here—is for “old school” types for whom the “real world” has passed by.

In these changing times, Microsoft has “redefined” itself away from being a PC software-oriented company, a sad state of affairs indeed. Although most of the recently announced 18,000 layoffs in Microsoft’s future is being born by “redundant” labor in the Nokia phone division, it nevertheless testifies to the fact that the company can no longer afford to be “generous” with its mass of employees. Given my stated attitude toward “smart” devices and their limited capabilities to do “real” work, I see nothing “positive” about this development—especially if it means even less attention to the PC.

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