Criticism of Microsoft

Criticism of Microsoft

Criticism of Microsoft has followed various aspects of its products and business practices. Issues with ease of use, stability, and security of the company's software are common targets for critics. In the 2000s, a number of malware attacks have targeted security flaws in Microsoft Windows and other programs. Microsoft is also accused of locking vendors and consumers into their products, and of not following and complying with existing standards in its software.[1][2] Total cost of ownership comparisons of Linux as well as Mac OS X to Windows are a continuous point of debate.[3]

The company has been the subject of numerous lawsuits by several governments and other companies for unlawful monopolistic practices. In 2004, the European Union found Microsoft guilty in the European Union Microsoft competition case. Additionally, EULAs for Microsoft programs are often criticized as being too restrictive.[4]


Product criticism

Vendor lock-in

From its inception, Microsoft defined itself as a platform company and understood the importance of attracting third-party programmers. It did so by providing development tools, training, access to proprietary APIs in early versions, and partner programs. Although the resulting ubiquity of Microsoft software allows a user to benefit from network effects, critics decry what they consider to be an "embrace, extend and extinguish" strategy by Microsoft of adding proprietary features to open standards, thereby using its market dominance to gain de facto ownership of standards "extended" in this way.[5][6][7][8]

Microsoft software is also presented as a "safe" choice for IT managers purchasing software systems. In an internal memo for senior management Microsoft's head of C++ development, Aaron Contorer, stated:[9]

The Windows API is so broad, so deep, and so functional that most Independent Software Vendors would be crazy not to use it. And it is so deeply embedded in the source code of many Windows apps that there is a huge switching cost to using a different operating system instead... It is this switching cost that has given the customers the patience to stick with Windows through all our mistakes, our buggy drivers, our high TCO (total cost of ownership), our lack of a sexy vision at times, and many other difficulties [...] Customers constantly evaluate other desktop platforms, [but] it would be so much work to move over that they hope we just improve Windows rather than force them to move. In short, without this exclusive franchise called the Windows API, we would have been dead a long time ago.

More recently, Microsoft had their OOXML specification approved by the ISO standards body in a manner consistent with previous attempts to control standards.[10]

Copyright enforcement

When Microsoft discovered that its first product, Altair BASIC, was subject to widespread illegal copying, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote an Open Letter to Hobbyists that openly accused many hobbyists of stealing software. Gates's letter provoked many responses, with some hobbyists objecting to the broad accusation, and others supporting the principle of compensation.[11] This disagreement over whether software should be proprietary continues into the present day under the banner of the free software movement, with Microsoft characterizing free software released under the terms of the GPL as being "potentially viral"[12] and the GNU General Public License itself as a "viral license" which "infects" proprietary software and forces its developer to have to release proprietary source to the public.[13]

The Halloween documents, internal Microsoft memos which were leaked to the open source community beginning in 1998, indicate that some Microsoft employees perceive "open source" software — in particular, Linux — as a growing long-term threat to Microsoft's position in the software industry. The Halloween documents acknowledged that parts of Linux are superior to the versions of Microsoft Windows available at the time, and outlined a strategy of "de-commoditize[ing] protocols & applications."[5][6][7][8][14] Microsoft stated in its 2006 Annual Report that it was a defendant in at least 35 patent infringement lawsuits.[15] The company's litigation expenses for April 2004 through March 2007 exceed $4.3 billion: over $4 billion in payouts, plus $300 million in legal fees.[16]

Another concern of critics is that Microsoft may be using the distribution of shared source software to harvest names of developers who have been exposed to Microsoft code, as some believe that these developers could someday be the target of lawsuits if they were ever to participate in the development of competing products. This issue is addressed in published papers from several organizations including the American Bar Association and the Open Source Initiative.[17][18]

Starting in the 1990s, Microsoft was accused of maintaining "hidden" or "secret" APIs: interfaces to its operating system software that it deliberately keeps undocumented to gain a competitive advantage in its application software products.[19] Microsoft employees have consistently denied this;[20][21] they claim that application developers inside and outside Microsoft routinely reverse-engineered DOS and 16-bit versions of Windows without any inside help, creating legacy support problems that far exceeded any alleged benefit to Microsoft.[22][23][24] In response to court orders, Microsoft has published interfaces between components of its operating system software, including components like Internet Explorer, Active Directory, and Windows Media that sell as part of Windows but compete with application software.

Licensing agreements

A common complaint[25][26] about Windows comes from those who want to purchase a computer without a copy of Windows pre-installed, because they already own another copy of Windows available to install (ex: pre-ordered an upcoming version of Windows) or intend to use another operating system instead (such as Linux, FreeBSD, OpenSolaris or any other libre-free open source OS). Since free operating systems provide strong competition to Windows, which is a non free OS, Microsoft tries to force users not to choose an operating system by creating a market where most computers shipped from OEMs come with Windows preinstalled, and by secretly agreeing with OEMs by means of rebates, to make it very hard to receive a Windows refund.[27][28]

While many computer manufacturers have begun to offer specific product ranges with Linux pre-installed (these include HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer, MSI, Intel, and others), finding such a computer from a major OEM may prove challenging. While vendors sell certain models bundled with Linux, these are often limited to high-end workstations and enterprise servers, or budget, domestic models. Dell, for example, sells Linux pre-installed on home systems, but it is only offered on a limited number of models and configurations and Dell also explicitly warns prospective buyers that "The main thing to note is that when you choose open source you don't get a Windows operating system."[29]

So while in theory computers with free operating systems can be obtained, nonetheless, most large computer vendors continue to bundle Microsoft Windows with the majority of the personal computers in their ranges. The Findings of Fact in the United States Microsoft antitrust case established that "One of the ways Microsoft combats piracy is by advising OEMs that they will be charged a higher price for Windows unless they drastically limit the number of PCs that they sell without an operating system pre-installed. In 1998, all major OEMs agreed to this restriction."[30] This has been called the "Windows tax" or "Microsoft tax".[31][32]

Some smaller OEMs and larger retail chains have taken advantage of the paucity of non-Windows offerings by major suppliers by specializing in Linux-based systems. Some Linux distributors also run 'partnership' programs to endorse suppliers of machines with their system preinstalled.[33] Sun Microsystems, which supports OpenSolaris distribution, runs a partnership program with Toshiba which provides Toshiba laptops with OpenSolaris preinstalled.[34]

Windows tax can also be avoided by assembling a computer from separately purchased parts, thus not buying it from an OEM. This however requires extra effort and technical knowledge, and is even more difficult in case of a laptop. Another option is buying a preassembled white box machine.

An end user can return Windows for a refund by refusing to agree to the Microsoft End User License Agreement. The Microsoft EULA specifically mentions that if you do not agree to the license you can return the product for a full refund. Vendors may have a policy of charging for the provision of the refund such that the balance received by the customer is as low as $10,[35] despite this being a violation of consumer protection law in many countries.[35][36] A certain number of customers were refunded[37] of their Windows licence, whether using the EULA or not, whether through an agreement or through court.


Microsoft has acquired several companies and products during its history, including some that competed with earlier Microsoft products.[38] Such acquired assets include DOS (Seattle Computer Products QDOS), FrontPage (Vermeer Technologies Incorporated FrontPage), WebTV (now MSN TV), Hotmail, Direct3D, Internet Explorer (Spyglass, Inc. Mosaic), Visio (Visio Corporation Visio), Windows Virtual PC (Connectix Virtual PC), and Windows Defender (GIANT Company Software, Inc. GIANT AntiSpyware). Microsoft rebrands the primary products of the companies it acquires, and in many cases offers them for free or bundles them with their operating system. Former Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy occasionally remarked that Microsoft never produced technology except by buying it: "R&D [research and development] and M&A [mergers and acquisitions] are the same thing over there."[39]


Microsoft's market dominance and business practices have attracted widespread resentment, which is not necessarily restricted to the company's competitors. In a 2003 publication, Dan Geer argued the prevalence of Microsoft products has resulted in a monoculture which is dangerously easy for viruses to exploit.[40]

Labor practices

The entrance to Microsoft's Redmond campus

While Microsoft's permanent workers enjoy some of the best corporate treatment, a large part of Microsoft's labor pool exists outside this privileged class. This includes the use of permatemp employees (employees employed for years as "temporary," and therefore without medical benefits), use of forced retention tactics, where departing employees would be sued to prevent departure, as well as more traditional cost-saving measures, ranging from cutting medical benefits, to not providing towels in company locker rooms.[41]

Historically, Microsoft has also been accused of overworking employees, in many cases, leading to burnout within just a few years of joining the company. The company is often referred to as a "Velvet Sweatshop", a term which originated in a Seattle Times article in 1989,[42] and later became used to describe the company by some of Microsoft's own employees.[43] The focus of the idea is that Microsoft provides nearly everything for its employees in a convenient place, but in turn overworks them to a point where it would be bad for their (possibly long-term) health. For example, the kitchenettes have free beverages and many buildings include exercise rooms and showers. However, the accusation is that they try to keep employees at the company for unreasonably long hours and working too much. This is detailed in several books about Microsoft, including "Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire."

A US state lawsuit was brought against Microsoft in 1992 representing 8,558 current and former employees that had been classified as "temporary" and "freelance", and became known as Vizcaino v. Microsoft. In 1993, the suit became a US Federal Class Action in the United States District Court Western District Of Washington At Seattle as No. C93-178C. The Final Settlement[44] came in 2005. The case was decided on the (IRS-defined) basis that such "permatemps" had their jobs defined by Microsoft, worked alongside regular employees doing the same work, and worked for long terms. After a series of court setbacks including three reversals on appeal, Microsoft settled the suit for US $93 million.

A side effect of the "permatemp" lawsuit is that now contract employees are prevented from participating in team morale events and other activities that could be construed as making them "employees". They are also limited to one year contracts and must leave after that time for 100 days before returning under contract.

Microsoft is the largest American corporate user of H-1B guest worker visas and has joined other large technology companies like Google in recently lobbying for looser H-1B visa restrictions.[45][46][47]

Advertising and public relations

Microsoft contributes money to several think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. Critics allege that while giving the appearance of neutral third parties these organizations work to undermine Microsoft's competitors, for example stating "open-source software may offer [a] target for terrorists".[48][49][50]

In August 2004, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of the United Kingdom ordered Microsoft to stop a run of print ads that claimed that the total cost of ownership of Linux servers was ten times that of Windows Server 2003. The comparison included the cost of hardware, and put Linux at a disadvantage by installing it on more expensive but poorer-performing hardware compared to that used for Windows.[51][52]

On January 24, 2007, Rick Jelliffe made claim on his blog that a Microsoft employee offered to pay him to make corrections in Wikipedia articles concerning Office Open XML. Microsoft spokesperson Catherine Brooker expressed the belief that the article had been "heavily written" by IBM employees who supported the rival OpenDocument format, though she provided no specific evidence. Internet entrepreneur and Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales described Microsoft's offer as unethical.[53]

Blacklisting of journalists

In the 1980s, the company was notorious for keeping Nixonian lists regarding journalists on a whiteboard showing which were "Okay," "Sketchy," or "Needs work." Some believed that those in the last category would be the target of the company in an effort to get them fired. I myself was on a Microsoft blacklist for some totally unknown reason and was not allowed any information about an early version of Windows, apparently because I was considered uncooperative. I only found out about this because of documents unearthed during the discovery process of the Comes v. Microsoft lawsuit in Iowa. [...] threats from the company did manage to get me removed as a licensed columnist in PC Magazine Italy.
[I was] blacklisted by Microsoft for writing a story based on an internal memo penned by Mark Lucovsky (now with Google, ironically) that acknowledged 63,000 bugs were still left in Windows 2000 when the product [was] shipped. I was barred from executive interviews at the Windows 2000 launch as a result of my story. My "punishment" lasted for a few years. Certain Windows execs refused to speak to me or meet with me for ages because of that story. I believed, and still believe, that I was just doing my job as a reporter.
— Mary Jo Foley[55]

Censorship in China

Microsoft (along with Google, Yahoo, Cisco, AOL, Skype, and other companies) has cooperated with the Chinese government in implementing a system of Internet censorship.[56] Human rights advocates such as Human Rights Watch and media groups such as Reporters Without Borders criticized the companies, noting for example that it is "ironic that companies whose existence depends on freedom of information and expression have taken on the role of censor."[57]

Worker productivity software

Microsoft has also come under criticism for developing software capable of analyzing the output of remote sensors in order to measure the competence and productivity of workers based on their physical responses.[58]

Gay reference controversy

Microsoft has recently come under some criticism for its attitude to homosexuality and Xbox Live. Users may not use the string "gay" in a gamertag (even in a non-homosexual context, for example as part of a surname), or refer to homosexuality in their profile (including self-identifying as such), as the company considers this "content of a sexual nature" or "offensive" to other users and therefore unsuitable for the service.[59][60][61] After banning 'Teresa', a lesbian gamer who had been harassed by other users for being a homosexual, this policy gained wide condemnation. A senior Xbox Live team member, Stephen Toulouse, has clarified the policy, stating that "Expression of any sexual orientation [...] is not allowed in gamertags" but that they are "examining how we can provide it in a way that wont [sic] get misused".[62][63] GLAAD weighed in on the controversy as well, supporting the steps that Microsoft has taken over the years to engage the LGBT community.[64]

Website concerns

Polish users of Microsoft's Business Productivity Infrastructure website[65] have noticed a white model's face has been photoshopped over the head of the African American model at center in the photograph on the main page of the Polish language version of the website. The website Photoshop Disasters covered the story on 25 August 2009[66]

As of 1:00 A.M. GMT on 25 August, this has been changed and the image on the Polish website now reflects the image on the English website. Microsoft later issued an apology regarding the incident.[67] Spokesman Lou Gellos stated that Microsoft was "looking into the details of this situation." The apology was later restated on Microsoft's official Twitter page[68]: "Marketing site photo mistake - sincere apologies - we're in the process of taking down the image."

The reasons for the original change still remain unknown.

See also

General mechanisms at work:


  • Charles, John. "Indecent proposal? Doing Business With Microsoft". IEEE Software. January/February 1998. pp. 113–117.
  • Clark, Jim with Owen Edwards. Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion Dollar Start-up That Took on Microsoft. New York, Saint Martin's Press, 1999
  • Cusumano, Michael A.; Selby, Richard W. Microsoft Secrets: How the World's Most Powerful Software Company Creates Technology, Shapes Markets and Manages People. New York: Free Press, 1995.
  • Edstrom, Jennifer; Eller, Marlin. Barbarians Led by Bill Gates: Microsoft from inside: How the World's Richest Corporation Wields its Power. N.Y. Holt, 1998.
  • Goldman Rohm, Wendy (September 1998). The Microsoft File: the secret case against Bill Gates. New York, NY 10022: Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-2716-8. 
  • Lemos, Robert. (2003). U.S. funds study of tech monocultures. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from
  • Moody, Fred. I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year With Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier. New York: Viking, 1995.
  • National Science Foundation. (2003). Taking Cues from Mother Nature to Foil Cyber Attacks. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from
  • Bozman, Jean; Gillen, Al; Kolodgy, Charles; Kusnetzky, Dan; Perry, Randy; & Shiang, David (October 2002). "Windows 2000 Versus Linux in Enterprise Computing: An assessment of business value for selected workloads". IDC, sponsored by Microsoft Corporation. White paper.
  • In an article published by BusinessWeek, Dan Kunsnetzky suggests that study was stacked against Linux.
  • Groklaw portal on Microsoft litigation Microsoft Litigation * Matthew Newman "Microsoft Fined Record EU899 Million by EU Regulator (Update1)". Bloomberg, February 27, 2008
  • "EU says could have fined Microsoft up to 1.5 bln eur over antitrust decision". CNNMoney, February 27, 2008
  • "Microsoft fined 899 mln eur by EU for failure to comply with ruling UPDATE". CNNMoney, February 27, 2008
  • Reporting by David Lawsky; Editing by Dale Hudson "EU fines Microsoft record $1.35 billion". Reuters, February 27, 2008
  • "EU fines Microsoft record $1.3 billion". CNNMoney, February 27, 2008
  • Parmy Olson "Q&A: Microsoft's Multi-Billion Dollar EU Fine"., February 27, 2008
  • Leo Cendrowicz "EC fines Microsoft a record $1.4 bil". The Hollywood Reporter, February 27, 2008
  • Mike Ricciut "EU slaps Microsoft with $1.35 billion fine". CNet News, February 27, 2008
  • "Microsoft fined 899 mln eur by EU for failure to comply with ruling UPDATE". CNNMoney, February 27, 2008
  • Rory Watson "Microsoft hit by €899m fine for failure to comply with EU ruling". Times, February 27, 2008
  • "EU hits Microsoft with record 899 million euro anti-trust fine". AFP, February 27, 2008
  • Benjamin J. Romano "In the bad timing category: EU fine rains on Microsoft launch parade". The Seattle Times, February 27, 2008
  • Aoife white "Record EU Fine for Microsoft". The Associated Press, February 27, 2008
  • Stephen Castle "EU fine sends message to Microsoft and others". International Herald Tribune, February 27, 2008
  • Damon Poeter "EU Slams Microsoft With Record $1.35 Billion Fine". Channelweb Network, February 27, 2008
  • Ina Fried "Ballmer on EU, Yahoo". CNet News, February 27, 2008
  • David Prosser "Microsoft fined record €899m by EU over market abuse". The Independent, February 28, 2008


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  36. ^ AFUL: PC-Windows bundling, first hearing at TGI in Paris: UFC Que Choisir against Darty
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  40. ^ draft 5
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  45. ^ Gates warns on US immigration curbs
  46. ^ Senators: Companies with "mass layoffs" shouldn't hire more foreign workers
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