Criticism of Microsoft
Criticism of Microsoft has followed various aspects of its products and business practices. Issues with ease of use, robustness, and security of the company's software are common targets for critics. In the 2000s, a number of malware mishaps have targeted security flaws in Microsoft Windows and other programs. Microsoft is also accused of locking vendors and consumers into their products, and of not following and complying with existing standards in its software. Total cost of ownership comparisons of Linux as well as Mac OS X to Windows are a continuous point of debate.
The company has been the subject of numerous lawsuits by several governments and other companies for unlawful monopolistic practices. In 2004, the European Union found Microsoft guilty in the European Union Microsoft competition case. Additionally, EULAs for Microsoft programs are often criticized as being too restrictive.
- 1 Vendor lock-in
- 2 Copyright enforcement
- 3 Licensing agreements
- 4 Acquisitions
- 5 Litigation
- 6 Labor practices
- 7 Advertising and public relations
- 8 Blacklisting of journalists
- 9 Censorship in China
- 10 Collaboration with the NSA on internet surveillance
- 11 Worker productivity software
- 12 Gay reference controversy
- 13 Website concerns
- 14 Outlook email service
- 15 See also
- 16 References
- 17 Footnotes
- 18 External links
From its inception, Microsoft defined itself as a platform company and understood the importance of attracting third-party programmers. It did so by providing development tools, training, access to proprietary APIs in early versions, and partner programs. Although the resulting ubiquity of Microsoft software allows a user to benefit from network effects, critics decry what they consider to be an "embrace, extend and extinguish" strategy by Microsoft of adding proprietary features to open standards, thereby using its market dominance to gain unofficial ownership of standards "extended" in this way.
Microsoft software is also presented as a "safe" choice for IT managers purchasing software systems. In an internal memo for senior management Microsoft's head of C++ development, Aaron Contorer, stated:
|“||The Windows API is so broad, so deep, and so functional that most Independent Software Vendors would be crazy not to use it. And it is so deeply embedded in the source code of many Windows apps that there is a huge switching cost to using a different operating system instead... It is this switching cost that has given the customers the patience to stick with Windows through all our mistakes, our buggy drivers, our high TCO (total cost of ownership), our lack of a sexy vision at times, and many other difficulties [...] Customers constantly evaluate other desktop platforms, [but] it would be so much work to move over that they hope we just improve Windows rather than force them to move. In short, without this exclusive franchise called the Windows API, we would have been dead a long time ago.||”|
When Microsoft discovered that its first product, Altair BASIC, was subject to widespread illegal copying, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote an Open Letter to Hobbyists that openly accused many hobbyists of stealing software. Gates' letter provoked many responses, with some hobbyists objecting to the broad accusation, and others supporting the principle of compensation. This disagreement over whether software should be proprietary continues into the present day under the banner of the free software movement, with Microsoft characterizing free software released under the terms of the GPL as being "potentially viral" and the GNU General Public License itself as a "viral license" which "infects" proprietary software and forces its developer to have to release proprietary source to the public.
The Halloween documents, internal Microsoft memos which were leaked to the open source community beginning in 1998, indicate that some Microsoft employees perceive "open source" software — in particular, Linux — as a growing long-term threat to Microsoft's position in the software industry. The Halloween documents acknowledged that parts of Linux are superior to the versions of Microsoft Windows available at the time, and outlined a strategy of "de-commoditize[ing] protocols & applications." Microsoft stated in its 2006 Annual Report that it was a defendant in at least 35 patent infringement lawsuits. The company's litigation expenses for April 2004 through March 2007 exceed $4.3 billion: over $4 billion in payouts, plus $300 million in legal fees.
Another concern of critics is that Microsoft may be using the distribution of shared source software to harvest names of developers who have been exposed to Microsoft code, as some believe that these developers could someday be the target of lawsuits if they were ever to participate in the development of competing products. This issue is addressed in published papers from several organizations including the American Bar Association and the Open Source Initiative.
Starting in the 1990s, Microsoft was accused of maintaining "hidden" or "secret" APIs: interfaces to its operating system software that it deliberately keeps undocumented to gain a competitive advantage in its application software products. Microsoft employees have consistently denied this; they claim that application developers inside and outside Microsoft routinely reverse-engineered DOS and 16-bit versions of Windows without any inside help, creating legacy support problems that far exceeded any alleged benefit to Microsoft. In response to court orders, Microsoft has published interfaces between components of its operating system software, including components like Internet Explorer, Active Directory, and Windows Media that sell as part of Windows but compete with application software.
A common complaint comes from those who want to purchase a computer without a copy of Windows pre-installed and without paying extra for the license either so that another operating system can be used or because a license was already acquired elsewhere, such as through the MSDN Academic Alliance program. Microsoft encourages original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to supply computers with Windows pre-installed by presenting their dominance in computer sales and arguing that consumers benefit by not having to install an operating system. Because the price of the license varies depending on discounts given to the OEM and because there is no similar computer that the OEM offers without Windows, there is no immediate way to find the size of the refund. In 2009, Microsoft stated that it has always charged OEMs about $50 for a Windows license on a $1,000 computer.
While it is possible to obtain a computer with no or free operating systems, virtually all large computer vendors continue to bundle Microsoft Windows with the majority of the personal computers in their ranges. The claimed increase in the price of a computer resulting from the inclusion of a Windows license has been called the "Windows tax" or "Microsoft tax" by opposing computer users. The Findings of Fact in the United States Microsoft antitrust case of 1998 established that "One of the ways Microsoft combats piracy is by advising OEMs that they will be charged a higher price for Windows unless they drastically limit the number of PCs that they sell without an operating system pre-installed. In 1998, all major OEMs agreed to this restriction." Microsoft also once assessed license fees based on the number of computers an OEM sold, regardless of whether a Windows license was included; Microsoft was forced to end this practice due to a consent decree. In 2010, Microsoft stated that its agreements with OEMs to distribute Windows are nonexclusive, and OEMs are free to distribute computers with a different operating system or without any operating system.
Microsoft does not provide refunds for Windows licenses sold through an OEM, including licenses that come with the purchase of a computer or are pre-installed on a computer.
By using the software, you accept these terms. If you do not accept them, do not use the software. Instead, contact the manufacturer or installer to determine its return policy. You must comply with that policy, which might limit your rights or require you to return the entire system on which the software is installed.
Acer has a policy of requiring the customer to return items at his or her own expense, and the balance received by the customer can be as low as €30. In other cases, vendors have asked that customers requesting refunds sign non-disclosure agreements. Older versions of Microsoft Windows had different license terms with respect to the availability of a refund for Windows:
By using the software, you accept these terms. If you do not accept them, do not use the software. Instead, contact the manufacturer or installer to determine their return policy for a refund or credit.
Based on the updated language, vendors refused to issue partial refunds for Windows licenses, requiring that the computer be returned altogether. In some countries, this practice has been ruled a violation of consumer protection law.
Microsoft has acquired several companies and products during its history, including some that competed with earlier Microsoft products. Such acquired assets include DOS (Seattle Computer Products QDOS), FrontPage (Vermeer Technologies Incorporated FrontPage), WebTV (now MSN TV), Hotmail, Direct3D, Internet Explorer (Spyglass, Inc. Mosaic), Visio (Visio Corporation Visio), Windows Virtual PC (Connectix Virtual PC), and Windows Defender (GIANT Company Software, Inc. GIANT AntiSpyware). Microsoft rebrands the primary products of the companies it acquires, and in many cases offers them for free or bundles them with their operating system. Former Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy occasionally remarked that Microsoft never produced technology except by buying it: "R&D [research and development] and M&A [mergers and acquisitions] are the same thing over there."
Microsoft's market dominance and business practices have attracted widespread resentment, which is not necessarily restricted to the company's competitors. In a 2003 publication, Dan Geer argued the prevalence of Microsoft products has resulted in a monoculture which is dangerously easy for viruses to exploit.
While Microsoft's permanent workers enjoy some of the best corporate treatment, a large part of Microsoft's labor pool exists outside this privileged class. This includes the use of permatemp employees (employees employed for years as "temporary," and therefore without medical benefits), use of forced retention tactics, where departing employees would be sued to prevent departure, as well as more traditional cost-saving measures, ranging from cutting medical benefits, to not providing towels in company locker rooms.
Historically, Microsoft has also been accused of overworking employees, in many cases, leading to burnout within just a few years of joining the company. The company is often referred to as a "Velvet Sweatshop", a term which originated in a 1989 Seattle Times article, and later became used to describe the company by some of Microsoft's own employees. This characterization is derived from the perception that Microsoft provides nearly everything for its employees in a convenient place, but in turn overworks them to a point where it would be bad for their (possibly long-term) health. For example, the kitchenettes have free beverages and many buildings include exercise rooms and showers. However, the company has been accused of attempting to keep employees at the company for unreasonably long hours and working them too much. This is detailed in several books about Microsoft, including Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire.
A US state lawsuit was brought against Microsoft in 1992 representing 8,558 current and former employees that had been classified as "temporary" and "freelance", and became known as Vizcaino v. Microsoft. In 1993, the suit became a US Federal Class Action in the United States District Court Western District Of Washington At Seattle as No. C93-178C. The Final Settlement came in 2005. The case was decided on the (IRS-defined) basis that such "permatemps" had their jobs defined by Microsoft, worked alongside regular employees doing the same work, and worked for long terms. After a series of court setbacks including three reversals on appeal, Microsoft settled the suit for US $93 million.
A side effect of the "permatemp" lawsuit is that now contract employees are prevented from participating in team morale events and other activities that could be construed as making them "employees". They are also limited to one-year contracts and must leave after that time for 100 days before returning under contract.
Microsoft is the largest American corporate user of H-1B guest worker visas and has joined other large technology companies like Google in recently lobbying for looser H-1B visa restrictions.
Advertising and public relations
Critics have alleged that Microsoft has used funding to drum up support from think tanks and trade organizations such as the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (AdTI), the Independent Institute, and Americans for Technology Leadership (ATL). During the antitrust case United States v. Microsoft, ATL sent a poll to 19 state attorneys general purporting to show that "the public believes state AGs should devote their energy to causes other than Microsoft". Also during the case the Independent Institute ran full-page advertisements in the New York Times and the Washington Post defending Microsoft, which was later revealed to have funded the ad campaign. The institute published Winners, Losers, and Microsoft: Competition and Antitrust in High Technology shortly thereafter.
A press release for a 2002 report by the AdTI claimed "open-source software may offer target for terrorists." The report itself does not mention terrorism or how it would target open-source software, but does allege that open-source software may be more prone to security holes than proprietary software. It gives particular focus to GPL-licensed software, claiming that it is not cost-effective. In 2004 the AdTI announced a report, Samizdat alleging that the creator of the Linux operating system Linus Torvalds based it on MINIX. MINIX creator Andrew S. Tanenbaum strongly refuted this claim. Microsoft has countered that it funds many think tanks besides the AdTI, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Heritage Foundation and that it does not fund any specific research.
In August 2004, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of the United Kingdom ordered Microsoft to stop a run of print ads that claimed that the total cost of ownership of Linux servers was ten times that of Windows Server 2003. The comparison included the cost of hardware, and put Linux at a disadvantage by installing it on more expensive but poorer-performing hardware compared to that used for Windows.
On January 24, 2007, Rick Jelliffe made claim on his blog that a Microsoft employee offered to pay him to make corrections in Wikipedia articles concerning Office Open XML. Microsoft spokesperson Catherine Brooker expressed the belief that the article had been "heavily written" by IBM employees who supported the rival OpenDocument format, though she provided no specific evidence. Internet entrepreneur and Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales described Microsoft's offer as unethical.
Blacklisting of journalists
In the 1980s, the company was notorious for keeping Nixonian lists regarding journalists on a whiteboard showing which were "Okay," "Sketchy," or "Needs work." Some believed that those in the last category would be the target of the company in an effort to get them fired. I myself was on a Microsoft blacklist for some totally unknown reason and was not allowed any information about an early version of Windows, apparently because I was considered uncooperative. I only found out about this because of documents unearthed during the discovery process of the Comes v. Microsoft lawsuit in Iowa. [...] threats from the company did manage to get me removed as a licensed columnist in PC Magazine Italy.
[I was] blacklisted by Microsoft for writing a story based on an internal memo penned by Mark Lucovsky (now with Google, ironically) that acknowledged 63,000 bugs were still left in Windows 2000 when the product [was] shipped. I was barred from executive interviews at the Windows 2000 launch as a result of my story. My "punishment" lasted for a few years. Certain Windows execs refused to speak to me or meet with me for ages because of that story. I believed, and still believe, that I was just doing my job as a reporter.— Mary Jo Foley
Censorship in China
Microsoft (along with Google, Yahoo, Cisco, AOL, Skype, and other companies) has cooperated with the Chinese government in implementing a system of Internet censorship. Human rights advocates such as Human Rights Watch and media groups such as Reporters Without Borders criticized the companies, noting for example that it is "ironic that companies whose existence depends on freedom of information and expression have taken on the role of censor."
Collaboration with the NSA on internet surveillance
Microsoft was the first company to participate in the PRISM surveillance program, according to leaked NSA documents obtained by The Guardian  and The Washington Post  in June 2013, and acknowledged by government officials following the leak. The program authorizes the government to secretly access data of non-US citizens hosted by American companies without a warrant. Microsoft has denied  the participation in such a program.
In July 2013, The Guardian elaborated that leaked documents show that
- Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to intercept web chats on Outlook.com and gave it unencrypted access to Outlook.com and Hotmail email
- Microsoft provided the NSA with access to users' data on its cloud storage service SkyDrive
- After Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism
In a statement, Microsoft said that they "provide customer data only in response to legal processes."
Worker productivity software
Microsoft has also come under criticism for developing software capable of analyzing the output of remote sensors in order to measure the competence and productivity of workers based on their physical responses.
Gay reference controversy
Microsoft has come under some criticism for its attitude to homosexuality and Xbox Live. Users may not use the string "gay" in a gamertag (even in a non-homosexual context, for example as part of a surname), or refer to homosexuality in their profile (including self-identifying as such), as the company considers this "content of a sexual nature" or "offensive" to other users and therefore unsuitable for the service. After banning 'Teresa', a lesbian gamer who had been harassed by other users for being a homosexual, this policy gained wide condemnation. A senior Xbox Live team member, Stephen Toulouse, has clarified the policy, stating that "Expression of any sexual orientation [...] is not allowed in gamertags" but that they are "examining how we can provide it in a way that won't get misused". GLAAD weighed in on the controversy as well, supporting the steps that Microsoft has taken over the years to engage the LGBT community.
Polish users of Microsoft's Business Productivity Infrastructure website have noticed a white model's face has been photoshopped over the head of the African American model at center in the photograph on the main page of the Polish language version of the website. The website Photoshop Disasters covered the story on 25 August 2009.
As of 1:00 A.M. GMT on 25 August, this has been changed and the image on the Polish website now reflects the image on the English website. Microsoft later issued an apology regarding the incident. Spokesman Lou Gellos stated that Microsoft was "looking into the details of this situation." The apology was later restated on Microsoft's official Twitter page: "Marketing site photo mistake - sincere apologies - we're in the process of taking down the image."
Outlook email service
As of May 23, 2013, Microsoft's free email service Outlook, which has replaced the previous format Hotmail for all users, has been reported to be mostly dysfunctional in several discussion threads on answers.microsoft.com  with several hundred individual complaints. For uniformly all users posting about the issue, login to their Outlook account and even access of the inbox is possible, and issues depending on browser, operating system or hardware have been excluded as the cause, but access to emails has been very limited and the message "We can't connect to Outlook at the moment. Please try again later" has been displayed. While the begin of the problem has been stated as varying from early May to immediately after the forced switch from Hotmail to Outlook, the occurrence has been reported to increase up to instances of "rarely accessible", depending on server. Microsoft has been widely criticized for failing to issue a statement as well as for the switch in general, while Microsoft Answers moderators have been criticized for recommending non-problem-related measures only.
General mechanisms at work:
- Path dependence
- Embrace, extend and extinguish
- Network effect
- Vendor lock-in
- Appeal to fear
- Fear, uncertainty and doubt
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- Discussions of Microsoft's business practices:
- Microsoft's Sacred Cash Cow (Seattle Weekly)
- CNN.com - Microsoft: Flaw left millions at risk (Flaw Discovered by Faisal Danka)
- Dissecting Microsoft - Analyzes Microsoft's business practices and software
- "The Microsoft Tax" - by The Linux Information Project (LINFO)
- FAQ on the Microsoft Antitrust case by The Center for the Advancement of Capitalism
- Sourcewatch about Microsoft
- Novell/SuSE Response to Steve Ballmer's Letter to the Linux Community
- Tax evasion:
- User feedback: