Microsoft gets more crap than any other company in tech. That's partly because it's given us garbage like Clippy, Microsoft BOB and Windows Vista. And it's partly because it's arguably the most important company in personal computing. Sure, Apple gets all the fawning press for designing pretty, easy-to-use gadgets. But Microsoft is rarely credited for being why mainstream tech has come this far—a computer on every desk, the explosion of the internet, even the idea of a common UI across applications. Even smarmy Mac and Linux snobs have a lot to thank Microsoft for, even if they don't want to.
1. Windows is on the vast majority of the world's computers, creating a virtually ubiquitous platform that anyone can develop for. That actually breeds innovation and development. Yes, Microsoft fosters innovation. While it's much easier for griefers to be mean if everyone's on the same platform, that ubiquity gives us a common ground to drive forward on.
Stan Seiler, senior docent at the Computer History Museum, credits Microsoft for creating the common UI concept—"a common look and feel across multiple applications," something that "couldn't be pioneered until somebody had a whole suite of applications," which Microsoft was among the first to do. They dragged third-party developers into following it as well, and voila, now most stuff works and looks the same across an OS.
2. Microsoft is basically responsible for the two-button mouse. Will Smith from Maximum PC (but not quite Hancock) gives the Gates machine props for really bringing the mouse to business computing with "the one-two punch of Windows 3.0 and Office." More than that, it created a simple standard for two-button mousing: left-click equals action, right-click equals choices. Love your scroll wheel? (I do.) Microsoft, baby. Apple's mouse philosophy is just silly.
3. Microsoft popularised the concept that software has value and is worth paying for it. Seiler says "it might sound obvious... but it was an important change in the mindset of people." No one had done it on the scale Microsoft did. Today this leads to some weirdness: There's a different price for each version of Windows. But this theoretically based on how much value Microsoft think is packed into each version of Windows (you can debate this, of course). But unless you're a freetard, you probably don't think the idea itself of paying for software is insane.
4. Microsoft's intimidation leads to innovation. The flipside of Microsoft's scale and success is that everyone hates them. (Duh.) While this sometimes results in unproductive pissing and moaning, it often drives companies to try to outdo the behemoth, after which Microsoft strives to catch up before getting leapfrogged again. This process benefits everyone.
The most famous example is the Browser Wars. Netscape Navigator pushed Internet Exploder forward (not only feature-wise, but leading Microsoft to bundle it with the OS, a big step in and of itself) before IE killed it and achieved a virtual browser monopoly. Years later, Firefox rose from Navigator's ashes to strike back at IE, which resulted in Browser War II and drove us to the point of internet awesomeness (and Web standardisation) we're at today. (Not to mention, as Smith points out, mainstreaming TCP/IP in Windows 95 made it much easer and cheaper to get on the internet in the first place.)
So, while Microsoft is now a super-bureaucratic organisation that may well be in need of soul, innovation and originality, the truth is, its very unsexiness is why tech and computing are as exciting as they are today. Microsoft's early years provided the foundation and tools, and today it provides technology's version of The Man to outsmart and outdo, which will make tomorrow as good as it's gonna be.
What else should we give credit to Msft under Bill's watch?