Saturday, May 7, 2005

Microsoft Gets It

As widely reported, Microsoft Corporation has reversed its “neutral” position on the gay-rights bill that was being considered by the Washington state legislature — and which failed to pass by one vote.

The cynical among us will say that its a little late — the vote was two weeks ago — and that Microsoft now has a whole year to shore up their position against the right wing, who will now presumably start boycotting Windows and go to use an operating system that has been built by a company that is supportive of anti-gay legislation…okay, who would that be? In the next year can we expect to see a rash of small faith-based software companies spring up, such as Jericho Firewalls, Holy Scripture e-mail, and Speaking in Tongues encryption? For most people, using software is the closest thing they get to prayer — “Please, God, let me download this file” — and you hear a lot of petitioning of the Savior when the dreaded Blue Screen of Death appears.

Microsoft’s position as the largest software company on the planet was never in danger, and the noises made by Ken Hutcherson, the fire-and-brimstone “preacher” in the Seattle suburbs, were probably never a factor in Microsoft’s decision to decide either way about whether or not to support the legislation, much as Mr. Hutcherson would like to take credit for it. Those who know the inner workings of the company will tell you that Microsoft, much like its founder, Bill Gates, is a company that spends all of its energy on its products and is amazingly unaware of their surroundings or the impression they’re making on people who are not a part of their immediate world. Outside matters such as PR and legislative lobbying are just means to an end, and while they treat their employees with a great deal of respect and offer them the legendary perks and benefits that once signalled a “new culture” in business, their goal is simple: to get the most out of them so they can be the biggest company in the business. I’m sure that the leadership of the company was genuinely surprised at the backlash to what they thought was a small and insignificant adjustment in their legislative honey-do list, and they were probably even more surprised to find out that anyone cared.

Well, now they know, but what does it mean? That’s hard to tell. It would be naive to think that a corporation would change its operating strategy and mission based solely on the principles of diversity and ideology, and I doubt that this was a “Scrooge on Christmas Morning” moment for Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. They’re in business to sell software, not shape the culture, and they do what they have to do to stay in business so that they can keep selling their stuff. The political consequences only come into consideration when it effects their bottom line. Being seen as a company that has a tin ear when it comes to gay rights could have played a part in it, as well as also being seen as a company that can be rolled by special interests — either one way or the other. Right now it’s good that they reversed their position, but it could also mean that in the future they will stay out of the political arena when it comes to social issues, and that could be a problem during the next few years as the culture war heats up. And it will.