Microsoft on Microsoft

How does the software giant spin its own history in its reference products?

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Back in 1991, Gore Vidal declared: "The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No first world country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity -- much less dissent."

That quotation can be found, ironically and conveniently enough, on Microsoft's Bookshelf 98 CD-ROM, a reference collection packed with 10 works including a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, atlas and a curious work called the People's Chronology -- "a concise chronicle of world events from 3 million B.C. to 1997, and the people who shaped them."

Microsoft's reference products present themselves as objective repositories of information and are used as such by millions of people all over the world. Indeed, its vastly popular Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia has rapidly become a major scholastic resource for students assigned those forgettable grade-school essays on Vasco de Gama, the Declaration of Independence, Franklin Delano Roosevelt or the secret lives of raccoons. Like the Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book, what Encarta says is what children and many, many adults take to be God's truth.

Yet in their own small ways, Bookshelf and Encarta are also exhibit A for the worrying trend Vidal identified. As Microsoft's hand in the creation and distribution of content continues to grow -- via overt projects like MSNBC and the Microsoft Network, along with the subtler influences the company wields through Windows itself -- it's instructive to look at how the company tells its own story in its reference works. What kind of self-benefiting spin do we find in its ostensibly objective "information products"? How does Microsoft write about Microsoft?

First off, it's not shy about itself. Microsoft glories in one of the longest entries for a corporate entity in Encarta, and the longest for a technology company -- longer than venerable IBM. CEO Bill Gates gets even more verbiage under his own entry.

To be fair, if Microsoft gives itself the lion's share of coverage, its entry also chronicles the charges of monopolistic business practices brought against it. All the way through June 1998, that is -- conveniently, the point at which Microsoft had a significant win, when a federal appeals court said it could go right ahead and bundle Internet Explorer with Windows 95. Microsoft proves it understands that old rule for winning friends and influencing people: always leave 'em on an upbeat note.

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In contrast, Microsoft rivals IBM and Sun Microsystems have Encarta
entries that end abruptly in -- believe it or not -- mid-1993. Surely, if
Microsoft's entry can take us within months of the release of the current
edition of Encarta, some attempt could have been made to record what two of
the foremost technology companies in this industry of blisteringly fast
developments were doing over the past five years, during which some minor
events -- like the rise of the Internet -- took place.

As it is, IBM's entry concludes with Big Blue's early '90s miseries --
its 40,000-plus job losses, its cut in stock dividends, its management and
CEO resignations. Meanwhile, Sun gets a meager 200 or so words and, in an
otherwise tech-savvy article, there's nary a word about Sun's phenomenal
success in the Internet server market or its development of Java, with the
continuing threat that poses to Microsoft. Apple, though, gets a lengthy
and cheerful entry bringing us right up to summer of 1998 and the return of
Steve Jobs to the Apple fold. Interestingly, the Microsoft investment in
Apple isn't mentioned.

Similarly, the People's Chronology supplies an intriguing backdrop to
the current government suit. With content written before the suit began,
the Chronology nonetheless reflects, subtly, the Netscape-Microsoft
rivalry. There's nothing overt, just little nuanced sentences in which
Microsoft's nose seems to wrinkle ever so slightly at the faint whiff of
its rival.

Take the description of the founding of Microsoft: "Microsoft is founded
at Seattle by computer whiz William Henry Gates III, 19, and his friend
Paul Gardner Allen, 22. Gates, who wrote his first computer program at 13
and scored a perfect 800 on his math S.A.T., has dropped out of Harvard to
start what will be the biggest seller of computer software and will make
Gates a billionaire before he is 30."

Contrast the language describing Netscape's IPO, and the implication
that fat cats Andreesen and Clark fiddle while the company burns: "Netscape
Communications goes public August 9. The company has yet to show a profit
with its Navigator Internet browser, but sale of stock brings in $2
billion, making Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark enormously rich."

For 1996, the Chronology adopts the language of strength and capability
to describe Microsoft's launch of Internet Explorer 3.0: It is "unveiled"
and "challenges Netscape's Navigator." Netscape "responds" by merely
"revealing plans" for Navio software, which will "try" to put browser
software on a wide variety of applications.

That's as far as the Chronology takes us in the browser wars. But there
are other little jibes and needlings against competitors that contrast with
small glories for Microsoft. For example, Apple gets a little snigger:
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak spend "6 months designing the crude prototype
for Apple I, using information picked up from visits to Xerox technologists
at Palo Alto." Besides being erroneous -- the information Apple gleaned
from Xerox shaped its work on the Mac and its predecessor, the Lisa, not
the Apple I -- the passage also implies that the Steves didn't innovate but
obtained their significant technologies elsewhere. Yet these reference
works never acknowledge that MS-DOS is a technology Gates did not create
himself but purchased from another company.

In the Chronology, IBM at least is given credit for still existing in
1995, when its purchase of Lotus "positions IBM to challenge Microsoft for
leadership in the software industry." We're thus gently reminded, in case
we had any doubts, who the boss really is. The launch of Windows 95 two
months later, though, gets positive spin and is credited with being so
hugely significant that it injected the hardware market with new vigor:
"Windows 95, introduced with great fanfare by Microsoft August 24, is a new
operating platform that makes IBM-compatible computers more 'user
friendly.' It requires more capacity than most existing personal computers
and sparks a rush to upgrade PCs or buy new ones."

The Chronology's cheerleading for Microsoft can be downright
embarrassing: The launch of Microsoft's magazine Slate is considered to be
worthy of an entry in 1996; a brief listing of major nonfiction literary
releases for 1995 concludes with Bill Gates' tome "The Road Ahead"; and the
launch of MSNBC is deemed worthy of a separate entry -- marking it as one
of the world events from 3 million B.C. to 1997 deserving of special note.

Silly excesses or a stealthy rewriting of history? In an age of large
media conglomerates, Microsoft's marketing of content as well as
technologies may not seem like a big deal. And Microsoft's story is surely
too important to be ignored by contemporary histories.

But name another producer of reference works that presents its own
history and that of the industry in which it operates to its readership,
and shapes the record of its own controversial saga. What other publisher
of standard research works has such a vested interest in influencing the
way we think about it?

By Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington is a technology writer in Dublin whose work appears regularly in the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications.

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