Originally Published: Monday, 20 September 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Unmasked Hero

"Newspaper advertisements that an Oakland institute presented as independent views supporting Microsoft's position in its antitrust trial were actually paid for by Microsoft, the institute conceded yesterday." -- SF Gate

*Sigh*. Once again, Microsoft has been caught doing something clearly unethical. This sort of thing used to infuriate me. People mistook my anger for many things. Often I was told something like, "you are just jealous of Bill Gates' wealth and genius."

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"Newspaper advertisements that an Oakland institute presented as independent views supporting Microsoft's position in its antitrust trial were actually paid for by Microsoft, the institute conceded yesterday." -- SF Gate

*Sigh*. Once again, Microsoft has been caught doing something clearly unethical. This sort of thing used to infuriate me. People mistook my anger for many things. Often I was told something like, "you are just jealous of Bill Gates' wealth and genius."

Well, I think it is time to set things straight. Let me start at the beginning.

My first real computer was an 8088 running MS DOS. I gained much of my knowledge trying desperately to get my games running in the limited amount of RAM. Over time, I became proficient with the DOS command line. It seemed pretty powerful to me. So much so, that I would laugh at those crazy Apple lovers. PC's were where it was at for me.

After a couple years the 8088 was desperately out of date and it was time for an upgrade. It was a thrilling day bringing home that 386SX. By now we had Microsoft Windows! I thought it was interesting, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do with it. I was happy in the command line.

It was around these years I began to knew I would be working with computers in one way or another for the rest of my life. I had no idea how programs were written, but I thought it would be grand to make some games. So I began to read up on how commercial software was developed. I was particularly interested in Microsoft. In my opinion, they made the best software out there. They were the fastest, the smartest, and they fast became my new idols (it also helped that they were rich)!

I remember vividly poring over Bill Gates biography. I'll never forget the story of Bill writing the scheduling software for his high school and modifying it so he would have the same classes as the popular girls. Mr. Gates embodied everything I thought a smart geek could be. I sincerely believed that his company was out there changing the world.

Our family churned through the Microsoft upgrade cycle slowly but surely. The good old days of memmaker and double-space. Back then I was impressed with the "generosity" of Microsoft. My friend had paid $40 for software to compress his hard drive. I got mine free integerted with my new OS! What a deal!

The days wore on and eventually our computer became a 486/66. Somehow I lucked out and I was one of three students in my high school chosen to get a shell account on a Unix system. Not only did we have access to a Unix machine, we had access to the Internet!

What a thrill I felt when I finally figured out I had to change my serial settings to 7E1 instead of 8N1 to properly connect. Usually, I would get in about 1200 baud. It was plenty of bandwidth for me. At first, Unix seemed bizarre and mysterious. But it was no more arcane than tweaking config.sys and autoexec.bat to get a mouse driver to load in "high" memory.

I explored the gopher space and read Usenet. I was really getting into this Unix thing. I also began to hear a lot about something called OS/2. The advocates of OS/2 were quite vocal telling me how superior this was to anything Microsoft had. I was pretty skeptical, but curious. Somehow I convinced my father to buy it.

After a major headache trying to get the beast installed, I had it up and running. I began to probe its capabilities. I was a near instant convert! This was light years ahead of MS-DOS and Windows!

I happily ran OS/2 and somewhat naively expected it would take its rightful place at the forefront of the consumer OS market. Unfortunately, IBM couldn't market the thing, and Microsoft drove it into the ground. I felt really betrayed by MS. Instead of making Windows better they used their energy to pull down their competitor. It was a queasy feeling.

Soon, everyone began to hear rumors of Microsoft's 32-bit OS code-named Chicago. The magazines hyped it on the front pages. I was convinced MS was finally going to do it! In my heart I knew it was going to put even OS/2 to shame. I couldn't wait to see what the masters at Microsoft would come up with!

I was so excited about it, I convinced my dear dad to pre-order a copy of Windows 95 so I could try it out the day it was released. Finally it arrived, and I threw it onto the computer as fast as possible.

After several weeks of playing with it, I knew I had yet again been betrayed. This thing was a joke compared to OS/2. My parents gave me a bit of well deserved ribbing. I had been hyping this thing to them for months. Those were the days I began to resent Microsoft. I could no longer look up to them. With OS/2 dying a slow, painful death it looked like the future was nothing but Microsoft. I didn't even know if I wanted to pursue a career in software anymore. I couldn't bear the thought of going to work everyday using something this shoddy.

I still wanted to learn C, but compilers for the MS world were way out of my budget. I heard from some friends that there was something called Linux which had a free compiler. I went down to the bookstore and bought two books. A C programming book and a Linux book with a Slackware CD included.

The learning curve for Linux was pretty steep at first, but I was motivated to get through it. It wasn't long before I began to see its true power. I also found that I hadn't been this excited about computing in years! The people making it happen were everything I thought Microsoft was supposed to be. These programmers were shaking the world with their creation and they were giving it away for free. This was something I could look up to!

Everyone was working together to make something they could use and would be proud of. It was a refreshing feeling to know who wrote the software I was using. I had no clue who wrote the Windows 95 kernel, but I learned right away who started the Linux kernel. I felt a sense of ownership to Linux. It was definitely rough around some edges, but was being improved daily.

I have to admit at this time I really hated Microsoft and I let everyone know it. I was 18 years old and I had found a new dream and a new set of folks to look up to.

Its been almost four years since then, and Linux has come farther than any of us would have predicted. I don't have any stock in Red Hat, but every time they go up, I give a hearty cheer. And Microsoft is just a lumbering decadent beast I sometimes take a gander at. Thankfully I was allowed to convert several legacy Windows systems over to Linux at work. I use Linux at home and at school. Life is good.

There are days when I wonder what could have been. Imagine what Microsoft could have done with their billions of dollars of research and their extremely talented developers if they would have had a grand vision other than making money at any cost. What a damn waste. Something must be wrong when a bunch of rag tag developers can compete with and beat the best they have to offer.

So am I jealous of Microsoft? Hardly. How would you feel after finding out your heroes are a fraud?

Matt Michie is a former Microsoft worshiper and now hardcore Linux junkie. He maintains a small web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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