Microsoft is the United States of the computer world. Everyone relies on it, and everyone resents it. OK, this may be an overstatement in each case. But there is more than a joke similarity between Microsoft’s and America’s burdens. Each enjoys the benefits of its dominance but also has assumed the thankless job of maintaining a complex international order. No one loves a hegemon.
In a few weeks Microsoft is scheduled to release new versions of the two products that are the basis of its superpower role. These are its Windows operating system, whose upcoming version was known as “Longhorn” through its many years of development and will go on sale as Windows Vista; and the Office “suite” of programs, including such stalwarts as Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Excel. Windows and Office are what make Microsoft so profitable—they are believed in the industry to account for most of the company’s roughly $12 billion in profit—but they are also what have made its product-development cycles so drawn-out and ponderous. Google, eBay, or Yahoo can tinker with their internal code, or float new programs on an experimental basis, and no one else’s software breaks as a result. But tens of thousands of hardware and software companies design their products to match Microsoft’s announced standards, and hundreds of millions of users assume that the programs will work on any oddly configured computer in any corner of the world. Microsoft cannot do anything by surprise—or very fast.
"Inside the Leviathan" (February 2000)
A short and stimulating brush with Microsoft's corporate culture. By James Fallows
The team in charge of Office turns out a new version of its programs every three years or so. (Disclosure: in 1999 I worked on the team preparing “Office 10,” as it was known inside the company. The current standard, Office 2003, was known internally as “Office 11,” and the forthcoming Office 2007 is “Office 12.”) At least half of each product cycle, eighteen months of the three years, is given to testing the software and looking for bugs.