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[Salon] Microsofts Geschichtsdarstellung in Microsoft-Produkten



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

BY KARLIN LILLINGTON | 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

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

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

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

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

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? 

SALON | Dec. 18, 1998 

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

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