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Wednesday, 29 June 2016 12:24

No matter who leads, Microsoft will always be tight-fisted

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Microsoft has been around for 41 years and has more cash lying around than most, but it still retains the mean-spiritedness that has been a part of its corporate culture from the start.

Only that accounts for the churlishness it displayed before paying out a user who had genuine problems with an upgrade to Windows 10.

As iTWire reported, a small business owner in California received US$10,000 in damages from Microsoft after a forced upgrade to Windows 10 went tits-up.

Microsoft initially fought the case that Teri Goldstein filed in a small claims court, after she had tried to resolve the issue by contacting the company's support people.

After she was awarded US$10,000, Microsoft actually wanted to appeal the verdict!

If anything, this shows that the company knows nothing about image; it still has the same spirit that drove its co-founder Bill Gates to accept 50 US cents from a gentleman in an all-night convenience store queue to pay for a carton of ice cream – at a time when he was worth more than US$3 billion!

This tale comes from the veteran tech journalist Robert Cringely and is in his book Accidental Empires, the best history of the US computer industry that one can find.

According to Cringely, when Gates reached the cashier, he began to fish in his pockets, searching for something. It was about midnight and the other people behind him became restive, with one finally asking him what was going on. Gates responded that he was looking for a 50-cents-off coupon.

Finally, the next shopper in line got fed up and threw down two quarters which Gates took and used to pay for his butter pecan ice cream. As he left the store, his benefactor shouted out "pay me back when you earn your first million."

Other shoppers shook their heads; they all knew it was Gates who at that time, in 1990, was worth in excess of US$3 billion.

That is the prevalent culture at Microsoft and it is doubtful whether it will ever change. It is a culture that puts money above everything else, even when the company's image is at stake.

The amount of bad publicity that Microsoft has received over the California payout cannot be nullified, not for a million dollars.

But then this type of behaviour is part of its genetic make-up. Gates, it must be remembered, also exploited his own partner, the other co-founder Paul Allen, when they started out in business.

Once again, this comes from an unimpeachable source: Allen. In his book Idea Man, Allen wrote that after Gates had quit Harvard, he called Allen out for a stroll one day. After walking one block, Gates came to the point. "I've done most of the work on BASIC and I gave up a lot to leave Harvard," he is quoted as telling Allen. "I deserve more than 60 per cent."

When Allen asked "how much more?", pat came the reply: "I was thinking 64-36." Allen, a logical person to the core, had some misgivings, wondering what his ideas were worth - the idea of mating a high-level language to a microprocessor, the development tools he had coded, his stewardship of the product line or his day-to-day meetings with the other programmers at the fledgling company.

But he was not one to haggle and shrugged his shoulders and accepted it. Years later, in 2006, when asked about this deal he told Cringely, "I made out okay."

Wait, there's more.

In 1982, Allen was again exposed to his business partner's impersonal nature and obsession with money. At this time, a rewrite of DOS was in the works and Allen had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease; the treatment left him weak and he was unable to put in as much work as he normally had been doing.

One night, he overheard Gates and Steve Ballmer discussing how they could get back Allen's shares if he died. He confronted the pair and although both apologised and tried to play down the episode, the idea of his leaving the company crystallised then and there.

So, when Microsoft refuses to admit wrongdoing and tries to resist paying people whose computing experience it has screwed up, don't shake your head in amazement and wonder whether the company will ever enter the 21st century.

Be it Satya Nadella or Ballmer or even the Dalai Lama at the head, the culture is all Gates. And it will be ever so.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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