I took part in the last days in two discussions on Slashdot. One spurred by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer behavior when he reacted to the news that an employee is leaving to Google by screaming profanities and throwing a chair across his office. The other by Microsoft’s official, but still nervous reaction to Massachusetts state government plan to get rid of MS’s Office and its proprietary, locked formats and move to OpenDocument.

It so happens that just recently I finally saw the notorious documentary, “The Triumph of the Nerds”, in which Steve Jobs summarized Microsoft by saying that they just don’t have taste. Interestingly, I remembered the quote a bit differently – they have no class – and so I used it in the debate. Slight difference, but yet lacking class is, in my opinion, something deeper than just lacking taste. This led to various debates about Steve Jobs’ outbursts at Apple workers, which everybody knows about – it’s a part of industry’s legend.

My problem in this is of course that I never met personally Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer – and probably never will. However, I read about them and the years where all this industry brewed and took shape. I saw them on different occasions on TV (traditionally or over the Internet). But above all that I believe that products of Microsoft, Apple – and in fact all companies that create something – reflect certain personality traits of their founders (at least to some point in time).

When I first heard Jobs’ quote – “Microsoft has no taste” – it struck me as very accurately pinpointing what my experience with using their software always was – of slight distaste, certain lack of trust and complete lack of admiration. It does what it is supposed to do, but… that’s that. It’s like a cheap four door sedan – it drives decently, breaks down frequently, has four seats and a boot and… well… that’s about it. You have it because you can’t afford anything better and you need a car to move around. There is no other point in having it.

On the other hand I never particularly admired Apple, but a few years ago it all changed with the arrival of OS X. Their offering now is the best thing for me – it’s based on Unix, which I spent years using, administering and teaching about, yet it has a killer GUI and is delivered in aesthetically pleasing package. What I expect to get from them now certainly has class – both inside and out.

As I looked at Microsoft over years one thing became more and more apparent to me – they are driven by greed and paranoid fear someone’s going push them out of their top spot just as they have pushed IBM and Apple to the sidelines. It’s a bit a like a criminal who made the robbery of his lifetime and now lives in fear that someone else is going to steal his loot. So for Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates software is a tool for earning money and building empire, not for making difference. When you hear Gates speak, when you read about his attitude I have no doubt whatsoever that what he thinks of his his success and his bottom line – and everything else is either a tool for that or a threat to that.

And when you look at his life it’s obvious where all this came from. He was a brilliant kid and was a bright man, but received the upbringing towards fierce competition and being rewarded for tangible results – be it monetary or temporal. As I read through his biography, The “Hard Drive”, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of pity. How can a penniless blogger pity the richest man in the world? Well, the problem is he had no real life for years. It was a life of a robot, switched to competitive overdrive, focused on his task of winning to the point of forgetting to wash. I could never sympathize with such a life.

When I look on Steve Jobs, on the other side, a see a fellow seeker of meaning and truth. Yes, he had (maybe still has) furious outbursts at people and brought a good deal of suffering into lives of some (I mean here above all his daughter, Lisa, and her unknown mother). But on the other hand this is a man of wide interests, who had worked on his spiritual development and was – and still is – attracted by beauty and perfection. Yes, he saw computers as a business, but he never sought to completely obliterate and eliminate competition. And, most importantly, he went through hard times, both personally and professionally – and learned from that. The results of his comeback to Apple are phenomenal and no one can deny that.

There is surely a difference of class between those two people. And there is a difference of class in the companies’ products – personalities of their founders can be seen through their products.

Small addendum for fellow ex-techies:

I think my distaste of Microsoft has its roots also in the fact that I mainly skipped the whole DOS and Windows 3.1 etc. part of the evolution many of my contemporaries went through. Instead, almost straight from using 8-bit home computers I jumped into the world of Unix workstations and servers – and lived there for about ten years. Because of that, and also because I took my time to intimately understand how Unix was built and how its internals were interrelated I always viewed Microsoft’s offerings of the time as crap. Up until Windows 2000, which by the way was the first version of Windows I can say I really used, their systems were laughable. They struggled to get around problems, which Unix designers have already solved in the early seventies! Had they read up some computer science books they could have known how to do, say, multitasking properly. Or user rights to files and folders.

But up until Windows XP their desktop systems were inherently unstable, crashing frequently – and had the tendency to degrade over time. A Windows system requires a complete re-installation once in a while, and Win XP is sadly no different as I learned last month. All the Unix boxes I had used, on the other time, routinely had uptimes of months and never ever needed any reinstall. Also, something that surprisingly few people know, the whole issue of viruses comes from poor design of the Microsoft’s operating system. There are virtually no viruses on Unix, there are virtually no viruses on Mac. I could go on and on and on.

So, coming from the Unix world Windows was simply poor engineering badly executed. They only recently started to catch up with things that were totally dealt with in the Unix world years ago.