Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Microsoft Is Dodging Scrutiny by Being Boring

This essay by Molly Wood, in the Atlantic, is framed as a piece about antitrust concerns, but I thought this line of inquiry was more correct and telling:

Microsoft does much more that we’re happy to call “evil” when other companies are involved. It defied its own workers in favor of contracts with the Department of Defense; it’s been quietly doing lots of business with China for decades, including letting Beijing censor results on its Bing search engine and developing AI that critics say can be used for surveillance and repression; it reportedly tried to sell facial-recognition technology to the DEA.

So why does none of it stick? Well, partly because it’s possible that Microsoft isn’t actually doing anything wrong, from a legal perspective.

Yet it’s so big and so dominant and owns so much expensive physical infrastructure that hardly any company can compete with it. Is that illegal? Should it be?

It is hard to say whether Microsoft’s products would improve with competition, but it would take a lot more than bugs and typical incompetence for many big organizations to migrate away from Windows, Exchange, and Office. Microsoft’s competitive position is pretty safe.

Meanwhile, it is surely advantageous for Microsoft to be kind of boring. Earlier this year, I discussed how the more anonymous back-end companies in a website’s stack face less pressure to moderate the use of their platforms compared to more user-facing services. Being boring and maybe a little bit inept are equally effective tactics. Microsoft faced public backlash earlier this year when it inadvertently censored worldwide Bing queries for the Tiananmen Square “tank man” image but, most of the time, there is little mention of Bing’s filtering in China because nobody outside of Redmond uses Bing.

Even so, it is striking to recognize how little attention Microsoft has received in discussion over the power of “big tech” companies. Microsoft is the second most valuable company in the world, and has been for some time. Its market cap has nearly doubled since January of last year, and it is only one of two companies to be worth over two trillion dollars.