How many of you think Microsoft is an evil company?
Slightly more than half the hands in the room went up.
How many of you think Microsoft is NOT an evil company?
The other half of the hands in the room went up.
How many of you think General Mills is an evil company?
Now every face in the crowd game me a confused look.
I was a teaching assistant for a Computer Ethics class at Brigham Young University. This was several years ago before the rise of Google. The point of the question was to help the students realize that we tend to ascribe noble or evil motives to computer companies that we do not ascribe to non-technology companies.
BYU is located in Provo, UT. The people in that class, at least the locals, had more reason than most to hate Microsoft. Provo was the historical home of Novell Corporation. At one point Novell Netware was the most popular network software in the world. Microsoft nearly killed Novell. At least Novell still exists today, although as a much smaller company, now headquartered in Boston. WordPerfect Corporation was maker of the world’s most popular word processor. Microsoft put them out of business. You can still buy WordPerfect software from Corel Corporation. Microsoft did most of the damage, but WordPerfect contributed to its own demise.
The point was that thousands of IT workers in Utah lost their jobs as a result of losing a war with Microsoft. And that’s how people viewed it. (How I Became a Pawn In the War With Microsoft (And My Brother Got To Be A Knight)) Even today, People have a strong view of Microsoft and whether it is a “good” company or a “bad” company.
We can understand why the people in Utah think Microsoft is evil, but why do others around the country and world? Why is Microsoft viewed as evil and a company like General Mills is not considered evil or good at all? I think part of the reason has to do with the nature of a system with two choices. Before the rise of Linux, Microsoft and Apple were the only two viable choices for desktop computers and laptops. Often when there are two choices, people will develop strong opinions about one or the other. Coke vs Pepsi and Ford vs. Chevy come to mind. And of course Democrats and Republicans.
What is ironic about the Microsoft/Apple rivalry was that the companies themselves were less passionate about the rivalry than the fans. In 1997, Steve Jobs was coming back to Apple, the iPod was still years away and Apple was on pace to lose a billion dollars. Microsoft ended up “investing” $150M into it’s rival. There are those who say that Microsoft was simply paying on a patent infringement suit, and that may be the case. But, having worked for Microsoft at the time, the feeling was that Microsoft needed Apple almost as much as Apple needed Microsoft. Bill Gates loved to be number one in whatever market he was in. However, being number 1 is less attractive if there is not a strong number 2.
Today, we’ve mostly moved on from the MAC/PC wars. Today it’s Google who is taking over the world, and like Microsoft before it, we could ask,
Is Google an evil company or a good company?
Ask a group of IT workers and you are likely to get similar mixed reactions like I got all those years ago in the class at BYU. And as we debate the morality of a computer company we are still left with the non-question regarding companies like General Mills.
In many years working in this field, I’m still not sure why we feel the need to vilify technology companies. Is it their power? Their size? The unique hold they have over our personal information?
I have to admit that I don’t know. What do you think?
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.
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