the Microsoft fallacy

One thing that I've heard a lot of is the idea that Microsoft has a lot of money, so MacBU should be able to do anything: port a Windows app, add a feature to one of our existing apps, etc etc etc. I've come to think of this as the Microsoft fallacy.

The Microsoft fallacy has the following components:

  • If a company has a lot of money, this means that they have sufficient resources to do anything.
  • If a company has a lot of money, every piece of that company has access to all of it.
  • Every large company acts as a single cohesive unit, and has one single goal.

Most people take it for granted that money doesn't buy happiness. But those who subscribe to the Microsoft fallacy forget that there are many other things that money doesn't buy. Money doesn't buy more time. Money doesn't buy great developers with specific domain knowledge. (Money can assist with recruiting great developers, but it's not the only factor in that equation.)

Those who forget that money doesn't buy a lot of things also forget that we might not have access to that money. Don't get me wrong, we're not pinching pennies over here, but we don't have access to an infinite amount of money. If money did buy everything that some people think it does, we might not be able to buy it anyway. I had an allowance when I was a kid. Today, as an adult, I have a budget instead.

The Microsoft fallacy has one component that isn't exactly fiscally-related, although most of the supporting arguments that I see for it are fiscal ones. That's the assumption that Microsoft is, well, Borg: there's one central processing unit that makes all of the decisions, and everything is done to a single end. This is true, in that Microsoft as a publicly-owned corporation is attempting to make money. But this component never assumes that Microsoft is doing the same thing as every other publicly-owned company; instead, it is assumed that we have some big overarching nefarious purpose, usually with either Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer cackling somewhere. This component forgets that we compete with lots of companies, and competition has one great benefit for us as a company: innovation.

MacBU is a small piece of Microsoft. We're ~180 people, out of a company of ~70,000. I'm reminded of this every time I meet a new person and they ask where I work, which often leads into a discussion of software that I don't use and know nothing about. The conspiracy theorists will tell you that MacBU is kept artifically small because Microsoft as an Empire wants you to buy WinOffice. Microsoft has lots of money, so MacBU could be a huge group if it weren't for the big mean Microsoft man keepin' us down. This argument forgets that, while MacBU is a nicely profitable business unit, we don't have as many users or we're not as profitable as as other parts of the business, so we simply don't get as many resources as other parts might.

What surprises me about the Microsoft fallacy is that I haven't observed it being applied to other large technology companies that make a lot of money. Maybe it's simply that no other large technology company is quite as obviously ubiquituous, even if they are larger.

Comments (9)

  1. steven says:

    "No other large technology company is as obviously ubiquitous" probably goes a long way to explain this. That is partly due to one of its founders, rather famously the richest man on earth.

    My grandmother, who’s never used a computer in her life, knows who Bill Gates is. She’s never heard of Steve Ballmer or Steve Jobs (nor, I’m willing to wager, any other executive inside our outside the tech industry), and she’s convinced an Apple is a piece of fruit. Still, she’s heard of Bill Gates. She knows he "owns" this computer company called Microsoft and that he’s the richest man alive.

    MS does have an awful lot of money (the "Micro$oft" nickname wasn’t coined arbitrarily).

    Another thing may be that software is a difficult thing for people to grasp. It’s not tangible. Few people, even those working in the software industry, truly know what it costs to develop software.

    Finally, most people outside the company won’t have any idea what comprises the MacBU or how it relates to the parent corporation. All they see is the "Microsoft" name. That happens to every large company. How many people stop to think that a Shell petrol station is not actually the oil company itself. (The station is often just a single franchise, paying a license fee to Shell Retail, which is a division of etc…) To the untrained eye, of which there are billions, such a company presents itself to the public as one big entity. Through marketing, branding, press releases. This can be a great strength for a company.

    The ubiquity of Microsoft, the synonimity of "MS" with "oodles of cash", the ignorance about software development and the inability to distinguish the part from the whole all conspire to cause this "Microsoft fallacy" phenomenon. And I assure you, it doesn’t just happen to MS. You’re just more likely to encounter it.

  2. I’m sure it doesn’t happen to Microsoft, but I haven’t observed it to this extent elsewhere.  Before joining Microsoft, I was with IBM, which is significantly larger than Microsoft.  Somehow the individual divisions of IBM had their own identities that were almost completely separate from IBM.  Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is something for the marketing types to argue. 🙂

  3. PatrickQG says:

    So you’re telling me that Ballmer doesn’t sit in his office cackling? I’m vaguely dissapointed.

    As to why it happens with MacBU/Microsoft… how many other companies who have ((70,000 – 180) / 70,000)% of their staff working on a platform/software for a platform, also have (180/70,000) working on software for a competitors platform?

    Of course, were MacBU to have lots more staff it might cease to be as profitable, which certainly wouldn’t be good for it’s longeviity.

  4. Patrick – Well, he might.  I haven’t been in his building, so maybe I’m misrepresenting him as being a non-cackler. 😉

    To return to my IBM example from my previous comment, they definitely have staff working on something from a competitor.  IBM Global Services will work on any technology, whether or not it is from IBM.  I don’t know what the ratio is, but I think it’s gotta be larger than MacBU:Microsoft.

  5. Markus says:

    So MacBU does really have 180 people. I thought this was a joke when I read that once. What are all those people doing? After all cancelled projects, there’s only Messenger and Office left, but even with all that work force Office is still slow as shit, Entourage is no real Exchange client, your colleagues even have to rip out VBA from Office, and Messenger can’t do video. What are your colleagues doing all day? Scratching their balls?

  6. Some of us are female, so we don’t have those to scratch, and there really isn’t a good female equivalent (certainly not one that’s made it into the colloquial).  

    We’re working on updates to the currently-supported versions of Office:Mac.  We released a major service pack back in March that added major features to Entourage 2004 (Sync Services and Spotlight support).  We’ve had a few smaller updates since then that improved performance and fixed vulnerabilities.

    We’re working on Messenger.  We’ve increased the functionality for corporate users.  As we announced at WWDC, v6 is coming soon, and will include some highly-requested features such as the now-playing feature (and remember: if you’re at work, you might want to make sure that you’re not watching a television show that you’ve downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, lest your manager figure out that you’ve been watching old episodes of ‘The Office’ instead of being in your office!).  

    We’re working on the next version of Office:Mac, which is code-named Magnesium.  One of the largest features of that, at least when measured in dev-months, is that it is a Universal Binary.  That plus some of the other back-end improvements that we’re making should give us a performance boost.  I’ve got a laundry list of other features that are going into it (including some Entourage improvements that I think will help meet your needs), but we’re not quite ready to start talking about individual features in Office yet.  Once I can start talking about that, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops — or, at least, I’ll be shouting it from my blog and from the new Mac Mojo team blog.

    Some of us are even working on the version after Magnesium.  I’m one of those people.  Our planning team has been working on that next version for a couple of months already.  We’re talking about what our users need from our products and what we need to do to give it to them.  And that’s probably a whole post, so I’ll write that one up in more detail later.

    Here in SVC (which is where about half of the team lives), we do have a pair of Xbox 360s and a pair of Xboxes (Xboxen?), so around 6pm, you’ll often find several members of the team blowing off some steam by playing Halo or PGR or something else.  

    If you’re really interested in what I’m doing that doesn’t involve standing around and scratching myself (although you did ask about my colleagues, and not about me, so maybe you already believe that I occasionally do something useful), I wrote up a series of posts back in June that detailed one of my days:

  7. :-/…

    Because EVERYONE knows that you can do Office Mac with an intern and three drunken monkeys in about a week.

  8. MikeInAZ says:

    Hey Nadyne,

    Thanks for blogging!  I’m as anti-Microsoft as the next guy, but I do appreciate the hard-work your team puts into your Apple products.  I prefer Office in OS X to Windows because it gets out of my way 99% of the time.  My only wish is for your team to make it a little more *mac*

    Good examples of more *mac* –

    – TextMate

    – OmniGraffle

    – Transmit

    These products make me feel like I’m in control and getting stuff done.

    Thanks again for your work 🙂

    – Mike

  9. Mike – One of our design challenges is walking the line between consistency with OS X and consistency with Windows Office.  It’s not an easy line to walk sometimes.  

    I think you’ll see some things in Magnesium that make you think we’re a bit more *mac*.  🙂

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