What is the price of Microsoft Windows?

Disclaimer:

First of all this is a rant, an angry and biased complaint, I figured that's just what the internet needed :) On a more serious note the facts that are mentioned here are credible, and I invite you to check the references. My criticism might be unfair or uninformed in places, and I apologize in advance if I offend anyone.

I frequently refer to Linux/UNIX/BSD in this article. UNIX refers very broadly to operating systems that share a common heritage and design. Prominent among these are Linux, which there are many varieties of (Android is a version of Linux) and BSD, which again comprises many varieties (Mac is a BSD system). The plethora of varieties in the UNIX world can be bewildering, but the underlying mechanics are very similar between them. There is often less difference between Linux and BSD, then there is between two versions of Windows for instance. So unless you get technical, the exact flavor of UNIX in question is not important.

Which company do you think spends most money on advertising, Microsoft or Apple?

Apple spent over a billion US dollars on advertising in 2013, Microsoft however spent more than twice that amount [1], despite having less revenue. One example: In this commercial Microsoft tries to tell you that the marvels of technology comes from them, and that if you just give them your money and your trust, they will "empower you" with all this wonderful high tech stuff!

But what is the reality?

Most of computer technology related to medical science, space exploration, communication, art and general science (as highlighted in the commercial) does not come from Microsoft at all but from their competitors. To give a few examples:

These examples illustrate that Microsoft is not the dominant force you might expect in the areas of engineering, general science, art, internet and even computer technology. But what then is Microsoft's area of expertise? Undoubtedly they must be doing something right since its such a popular platform. What Microsoft does particularly well, is merchandising. It is no coincidence that Microsoft uses the same percentage of revenue on advertising as Coca Cola does.

So what?

If the consumer is happy, what is the problem? In terms of the dubious morals of market economy everything might be fine, but the hard fact is that when everyone drinks huge amounts of Coca Cola, serious health issues arise, and the cost to society is significant. It would be problematic indeed if Coca Cola advertised their product as a health drink, to such an extent that governments, educational facilities and the general public believed it! True the use of Windows does not create health issues, or at least not more so than any other electronic devices, but it does create significant problems for society. It wouldn't be so bad if Microsofts users realized that they used a bad product, but they choose nevertheless to use it out of old habits.

But this is sadly not the case. Even for casual usage Microsoft provides an inferior, expensive and unnecessarily difficult product [7]. They even go so far as to develop anti features and surveillance systems in an attempt to trick more money out of their customers [8][9]. Would you do business with a plumber who had the reputation of installing hidden cameras in bathrooms, and hot water tanks that only pumped out cold water if you happened to use a competitors shower system? Why do people allow computer vendors to get away with similar behavior? Luckily for Microsoft they had a monopoly for a long time and they exploited [10] their position to force hardware vendors into shipping only their operating system, blocking anyone else from entering the market. Add this to the fact that Microsoft spends billions of dollars on commercializing its brand and spreading misinformation about its competitors [11], and it's little wonder that they have retained their position despite having an inferior product.

Windows users are usually vaguely aware of the dubious quality of computer systems, but few realize that the chief problem here is not the computer they are using, but the operating system. You may have heard sysadmins say that the reason Windows have 99% of viruses is because 99% of people use it. This statement however is false, for one the numbers are wrong: As of Jan 2018 Windows has 36.6% market share, second after Android (Linux) with 40% [12]. According to a BBC article from 2008, Symantec claimed to have security fixes for 1,122,311 Windows viruses. Even very conservative estimates place the number of Windows viruses to well over 100,000 [13]. These numbers have grown exponentially in later years, so despite popular belief, modern Windows may even be less secure then it was in the 90's! In contrast the Wikipedia article on Linux malware lists 65 known botnets, trojans, viruses and worms combined! The article also correctly points out that most of these are academic examples, and that there are no widespread Linux viruses of the kind you frequently see in Windows. If you add all known malware for Linux, Mac, UNIX, Android and anything else, the number is slightly more than 100. [14]. Think about these numbers for a second: Windows has 1/3 market share and, conservatively, over 100 000 malware, everything else has 2/3 market share and over 100 malware. Do the math...

Now you may be thinking: "I just need Windows to power my entertainment center, who cares if its glitchy and insecure as long as I can play my games?" Fine. But does it make sense to use a pathologically unreliable operating system for your work, email and online banking? You may feel it's OK to play basketball with the local drug lord, but surely you wouldn't ask him to deliver your mail? And how would you react if you learned that he runs your bank? What's really frightening is that many ATM machines, CRT scanners and airport systems out there are using Windows XP in 2018! In fact 10 years after it's last service pack and 4 years after Microsoft officially left it for dead, 1 in 30 Windows users still use this depreciated platform.

A broader perspective

That is all bad enough but Microsoft has even manipulated charity projects [15][16] and governments [17] into using their products. In their commercial Microsoft tries to push the image that they are the innovative force of technology, however the anti trust cases against this company reveal the opposite [18][19]. But this is just the tip of the ice berg, when Microsoft lost the important anti trust case against the US government, they invested heavily in the presidential campaign and lobbying. Shortly thereafter, when President Bush was inaugurated, Microsoft somehow escaped from their sentence with just a symbolic slap on the wrist [20][21].

Microsoft's political engagement is no real surprise, after all the government sector is one of their biggest customers. You get a sense of the scale of things when the UK government said that they had used more then 200 million GDB (~340 mill USD) on MS Office alone during the three years 2010-2013 [22]. Or that the city of Munich have saved some 10 mill Euros (~13.5 mill USD) when they moved over to Linux. Other studies confirms that training and maintenance of Windows cost much more then Linux [23].

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to advocate any political policies here. I am simply pointing out the fact that through extensive marketing and lobbying, Microsoft has managed to push their platform into all corners of society, even though their product is a proven security liability, and far less cost effective then their competitors. Worse even, it is a known fact that this company has practiced criminal misconduct and deliberately sabotages innovation. This should be cause for concern, no matter your political views.

In the area of education having any commercial monopoly is obviously unhealthy.

Universities has played a big role in shaping computer history. More precisely in shaping the history of open source computer technology, such as Lisp and UNIX. There has never been any serious academic discussion about the design of Microsoft Windows, that I am aware of, or any other proprietary system for that matter. The reason is obvious, you cannot discuss code that you are not allowed to read!

Teaching students Windows in IT class is like teaching kids about nutrition by taking them to McDonald's! Making students click around in Microsoft Word and Excel does not teach them about computers, it only teaches them to be Microsoft consumers. You will find many outraged parents online that are worried about McDonald's selling their products in schools and hospitals. Should we be less worried about computer companies? Microsoft, Apple and Google are much bigger companies than McDonald's and Coca Cola. These companies are not into food technology, but information technology. Is that less dangerous?

Breaking a habit

Many Windows users chose their platform simply because that's what their used to. They have worked with it every single day for years, not to mention endless hours of gaming, and the habit is thoroughly entrenched in their minds (When I switched to Linux many years ago, the fact that I couldn't play Alpha Centauri almost made me go back...). Our ability to develop habits is inherently good, you can do your chores with little conscious effort. Essentially this is what training is all about. Nevertheless this ability can cut against us, particularly in the flaky and ever changing world of computers.

For private use the choice of operating system may not be all that important, after all if you make a poor choice it will only affect you. But in a professional setting Windows is very often the wrong choice, and choosing it can have significant ramifications. Ironically IT professionals are exactly the ones who have the hardest time adapting to new systems. They have spent much effort honing their skills, perhaps studying for years at university, just to discover that their skill set is obsolete, or worse, that all of that hard schooling was a waste of effort at the onset. It is understandable that many in such circumstances would rather refuse to acknowledge reality and keep up the old routine.

Let me tell you some experiences to illustrate this point: I worked at a web company in Norway for a few years. The company were hosting some 200+ websites for their customers, and they developed their own content management system, these services were all provided from a Linux server. Now the employers at this firm worked with Linux every single day, but almost none had actually used it on their desktop. They continued to work on their Windows machines as they were used to, copy pasting HTML from their Notepads to a Putty terminal. As can be expected these programmers had no real understanding of how Linux worked. They logged in as root (ei. with administrator privilege) and fumbled around blindly. Not only was this work flow incredibly inefficient, it was dangerous! One little mistake and 200 customers would be without their website. Why didn't the company just invest in a Linux crash course? Simply put, because they didn't want to. It would take too much effort to form new habits. So instead they chose to work inefficiently for years and endanger their customers data. Business as usual, the customers didn't know what was going on anyway...

This type of insanity is widespread, actually the norm. Many network sysadmins out there work exclusively on Windows. This makes no sense. It would be like managing the business accounts from a Gameboy. The internet is a UNIX technology, the TCP/IP stack Windows use comes from BSD [24]. All the routers and network gear you can find will all run a version of UNIX The web itself is almost exclusively powered by UNIX. (there is a reason why Google employees are banned from using Windows at work [25]). How well does a Windows network administrator really understand his job, when he doesn't understand the inner workings of his router, or the web for that matter?

Another story: A friend of mine discovered Linux when he worked at an IT company in Tenerife, he installed Debian on one of the company machines and set up a Windows file share using Samba. The Debian server worked much better as a Windows file share, then a Windows server would! Even so his colleagues were not impressed, they all continued using Windows. Eventually my friend moved on to another job, but he visited his old workplace five years after quitting. When he inquired about his old server the boss told him they were still using it. "Who's maintaining it?" he asked, "no one" replayed his old boss. Five years without any maintenance and the Linux box was working as a charm. My friend was impressed!

This little anecdote illustrates an important lesson. While Windows might have the functionality you require to do a job, it is not reliable. When setting up a company firewall or server, your primary concerns should be security and reliability. With such a constraints Windows is obviously not the right choice (And if you seriously consider using XP, then for the love of Mike throw your PC in the bin and invest in a typewriter!).

Yet another example: Many times I have seen law abiding organizations use pirate copied versions of Windows. When I confront them about this they often said apologetically, that they cannot afford a proper license. When I tell them there are free alternatives to Windows, they quickly interject "we have to use Windows!" Do they? Every time I have had this conversation people were not doing anything special on Windows that Linux couldn't easily do as well. In fact more often then not, Windows gave them serious problems! In one instance there were problems getting the sound and video cards to work. The machine in question was used at an educational facility on a weekly basis to project video material for hundreds of students. Even though the problems were never solved to satisfaction the system administrators continued to use his pirate copied bug ridden operating system. What strikes me about this example is that Linux was dismissed without examination or even consideration. Did they really keep Windows out of practical considerations, or had it become a compulsory habit?

Another thing I have seen on many occasions is people either buying cheap laptops or continuing to use an old laptop, and they want to put the latest version of Windows on it. However the weak hardware cannot handle the load and the end result is an unusably slow and noisy oven. A few years ago my brother came for a visit and brought along his old school laptop. The computer was about six years old and ran Windows 7. It sounded like a Jumbo Jet taking of when it started and it literally took 30 minutes from startup to minecraft. Since this was a throw away relic anyway my brother agreed to try Linux on it. 15 minutes later Linux Mint was installed and ran like a charm, the computer was quiet and cold and launched minecraft instantly. Even I was impressed, I had thought the old computer was ready for the junk yard. I should have realized that the problem was not the computer, but the operating system.

Computer systems are addictive. The more graphically pleasing and interactive (aka "fun"), the worse the problem becomes. If you do not believe me, then try going a week without your smartphone! Linux will not necessarily solve this issue, it too has games, and even worse, browsers. But if nothing else, forcing yourself to use an unfamiliar system, and thus break out of an old habit, can help (And seriously - try going a week or a month without using a smartphone [26]).

The bottom line

What can we conclude from this? Should you throw your Windows DVD's in the bin and insist that your work colleagues and family do the same? No. Microsoft is just one bad Apple among many. The world is full of problems we cannot solve, but we can be aware of the problems. You may not be able to avoid McDonald's entirely, and it isn't your place to insist that your friends should all go to the salad bar instead. But you can take control of you own eating habits, and you should know enough about the dangers of junk food that McDonald's commercials do not fool you into thinking that their burgers makes you sporty. Don't let the commercial IT companies fool you either, Microsoft has no intention of "empowering you", if anything, they are out to enslave you!

The commercial giants are not the only ones at fault here either, if consumers were more aware of what they were putting in their mouths, McDonnald's wouldn't be the giant company it is today. There are healthy operating systems out there. Open systems you can learn from and use the way you see fit. Like salad you might find it boring and tasteless at first, but once you break free from addictive junk food and start to notice the health benefits, you will never turn back (Spinach might be hard to start with, so I recommend Banana)!

References:

  1. Microsoft spending on advertisement
  2. Embedded market share
  3. Web server market share
  4. Supercomputer market share
  5. Film makers using GNU/Linux
  6. Programming language index
  7. OK, so this is a subjective statement. For a Windows user to test the validity of this claim, it is not enough to simply fire up a Linux box and play with it during the weekend. This would only measure a habit versus unfamiliarity. To objectively test which is best you would need to exclusively use the new system long enough to break your old habit, at leas a couple of months. Given such a test, I honestly think most Windows users would prefer Linux.
    1. Mum tries out Windows 8
    2. Mum tries out Linux Mint 14
  8. Anti features
  9. Criticisms of "Microsoft Genuin Advantage"
  10. Microsoft derailed Dell GNU/Linux
  11. Microsoft derailed DR-DOS
  12. StatCounter
  13. Windows Viruses
  14. Linux Malware
  15. Microsoft under powering One Laptop Per Child
  16. MS internal email exchange in the OLPC case
  17. Munich drops Microsoft
  18. Update: Munich later dropped Linux and plans to move back to Windows in 2020. It is worth mentioning that Microsoft used a huge amount of effort fighting the decision to adopt Linux. To illustrate just how seriously they took this threat, their CEO, Steve Ballmer, visited the Munich city council in person.
  19. Microsoft's deadly embrace
  20. Microsoft embrace, extend, extinguish
  21. Microsoft political engagement
  22. Microsoft ads and lobbying spending
  23. UK switch from MS Office to open source
  24. Linux vs Windows - Total cost
  25. BSD TCP/IP stack
  26. Google employees can choose between Linux and Mac
  27. Internet Addiction