Apple, Google, Microsoft: Who's The Biggest Lightning Rod?

Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide

Microsoft, Apple and Google are all companies that inspire strong reactions whenever they're mentioned. That's because in recent years, all three have been embroiled in the types of controversies that keep them in the public eye and provide lots of fodder for their detractors.

Here we look at examples of past behavior that explains why Microsoft, Apple and Google inspire such intense feeling and make them such incredibly conductive lightning rods for critics.

Apple's iPhone 4.0 SDK Fiasco

Back in April, Apple quietly changed the terms of its iPhone Developer Program license agreement to prohibit cross-compilers, which allow developers to write iPhone apps using languages other than Apple's Objective-C.

Flash developers were predictably upset by the move, but Adobe was even angrier since it was about to launch Flash Professional CS5 and had been touting its built-in compiler for Flash on the iPhone.


Everyone knows Steve Jobs is an intense, ruthless competitor, but this move brought Apple and Adobe's quarreling over Flash to a new level and took some of the sheen off of Apple's cool, progressive image.

Apple's Management Of The App Store

Apple has been criticized for being both too strict in rejecting App Store submissions and for being too lax in its oversight of the online marketplace. Primarily, though, critics don't like how Apple positions itself as the arbiter of what's OK and what's not OK when it comes to downloadable content on the iPhone.

Apple's stewardship of the App Store is undeniably inconsistent: Apps such as "Baby Shaker" and "Me So Holy" have made their way into the marketplace, but Apple enforces a strict prohibition of pornographic content, something that Steve Jobs has cited as a point of competitive differentiation from Google.

"You know, there's a porn store for Android. You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn. That's a place we don't want to go -- so we're not going to go there," Jobs said earlier this year at the iPhone 4.0 launch event.


Apple's business model hinges on the walled garden and all of the user experience benefits that makes possible. But with well over 50 million iPhones sold thus far, there's a case to be made that Apple controls a content platform that's too large to be under the control of a single corporate entity.

Apple's Silent Security Patch

For a number of reasons, Mac OS X has a reputation for being less prone to malware infection than other operating systems. But how far is the company willing to go to protect its pristine image?

It's a question security vendor Sophos was asking last month after Apple quietly included a security fix in its 10.6.4 update to detect the HellRTS Trojan, which masquerades as the iPhoto application.

Apple didn't tell users about the security fix, and Sophos suggested that the company wanted to deflect attention in order to maintain the OS X cloak of invincibility.


Apple's actions have opened the door to critics who see OS X security as one of the industry's most dangerous myths. "There seems to be this running theme at Apple that admitting weakness will sour their brand," said Andrew Plato, president of Anitian Enterprise Security, based in Beaverton, Ore.

Apple's Response To iPhone 4 'AntennaGate'

Apple's iPhone 4 is still wildly popular, but the company has been grilled over its response to the antenna issue. Perhaps that's because Apple initially tried to sweep the problem under the rug by suggesting that it's something to which all mobile devices are susceptible.

But the complaints didn't go away, and when Consumer Reports said it wouldn't recommend the iPhone 4 until the problem was addressed, Apple was finally spurred to action. But in a press conference last week, Apple didn't acknowledge the iPhone 4 design flaw or that significantly more dropped calls were even happening.


Apple finally offered iPhone 4 customers a free bumper case, but the whole situation just reeks of customer contempt. Somewhere, the Soup Nazi is smiling and nodding in agreement with Apple's stance on the antenna issue.

Google's Windows Zero Day Report

In June, Tavis Ormandy, a Google security engineer, uncovered a zero day vulnerability in XP's Windows Help and Support Center and reported it to the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC). Five days later, Ormandy went public with proof-of-concept exploit code, drawing the wrath of Microsoft as well as a significant portion of the security research community.

Although there have been strong opinions on both sides, the fact that Microsoft had by that time dealt with a string of zero days suggests that Ormandy could have handled this in a more fair and sensitive way. But the real kicker was that both Google and Ormandy claimed that Ormandy, in discovering and reporting to issue to Microsoft, was acting independently as a non-affiliated researcher.


Even if Ormandy found this flaw on his own time, someone should have probably realized how his discovery would be viewed: As a sneaky competitive maneuver that could have had some pretty grave consequences. This was clearly an act of security proxy war, and it's the kind of stuff that can tarnish a company's reputation in security research circles.

Google's Street View Wi-Fi Blunder

In May, Google admitted to inadvertently gathering data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks while its cars were taking photos for the company's Street View service. Google fessed up right away and said it was only trying to improve its location based services. Google also denied gathering personally identifiable data and pinned the blame on a rogue engineer.

But later on, Google changed its story and said it had actually gathered personally identifiable data. The company has also been slow to comply with international governments' requests to examine the actual hard drives that hold the data.

Meanwhile, international governments are lining up to investigate, and the fact that Google's mistaken data collection went on for four years could make the scope of this issue larger than apologies can fix.

"Google’s retention of user information and cooperation with repressive regimes is what truly scares me most. It’s an opportunity on the part of Microsoft and others to bring this unpleasant quality to everyone’s attention and disrupt their public perception campaign," said Joseph Giegerich, managing partner with Gig Werks, a Yonkers, N.Y.-based solution provider.


This thing ain't over, not by a long shot. Google's competitors will have a field day with this for years to come. Even if Google eludes sanctions, the Street View cars are going to be even more widely loathed than in the past.

Google's Antitrust Issues

Google has carved out a unique reputation in the tech industry with its unofficial "Don't Be Evil" corporate mantra. But this has also painted a giant target on its back, one that government regulators in the U.S. and abroad have found impossible not to notice.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the antitrust implications of the buddy-buddy relationship that existed between Google and Apple at the time. Earlier this year, European Commission antitrust authorities started looking into three complaints related to Microsoft's search and advertising businesses. Additional regulatory scrutiny seems to be a foregone conclusion at this point.


Google has pointed out that two of the three companies in the European complaints have ties to Microsoft, but the reality is, no one cares. Once a company starts getting hit with the harsh glare of the antitrust spotlight, there's no getting out.

The Google Buzz Fiasco

Google Buzz, the search firm's attempt to imbue Gmail with social networking features, arrived in February like a privacy-wrecking hurricane. For new users, Google Buzz helpfully generated a list of both followers and contacts to follow, based on who the user had communicated with the most in the past.

But Google Buzz also made this information publicly accessible to other Buzz users, essentially providing a peek inside users' personal lives and scaring the heck out of people. Google has since fixed the issue in a number of updates, but the Google Buzz name remains synonymous with ham-fisted privacy protection.


As a company in the social networking space, you only get one chance to launch an offering, and Google blew its opportunity and also gave privacy critics plenty to chew on.

Microsoft's Wielding Of Its Linux Patent Portfolio

Every couple of months, Microsoft puts out a press release touting some new patent cross licensing agreement it has signed with such-and-such company. It's an example of how Microsoft uses its shadowy collection of Linux patents to strong-arm companies that use Linux in their products into settlements.

Microsoft has never divulged much information about its Linux patent portfolio, but the prospect of going to court with some of the world's most battle-tested lawyers is usually enough to convince companies to pay Microsoft the licensing fees it's seeking.


From Microsoft's point of view, the money generated by these sorts of settlements is irrelevant: The greater value is being able to maintain a cloud of fear, uncertainty and doubt over Linux, and potentially dissuade companies from embracing it.

Microsoft typically goes after small companies but recently began intimating that Google's Android OS infringes on its patents. If that battle comes to pass, the ensuing electrical storm will be mighty impressive.

Microsoft's Vista Capable Debacle

Windows Vista was a disaster of unparalleled proportions in Microsoft's history, and the Vista Capable lawsuit was one of its darkest hours.

Microsoft launched the Vista Capable campaign in 2006 in order to keep PC sales strong after its decision to delay the release of Vista to consumers until after that year's holiday season. Customers who bought a PC with the 'Vista Capable' sticker would get an XP machine and then later be eligible for a free or discounted upgrade to Vista.

What ended up happening is that many PCs with the 'Windows Vista Capable' sticker were only able to run the most basic version of the OS, and couldn't run features like Aeroglass and Flip 3D.


Not only did Microsoft release a subpar product in Vista, it compounded this problem with a botched marketing campaign. Needless to say, this wasn't the software giant's proudest moment.

Microsoft's Byzantine Licensing Terms

Microsoft's software licensing terms are notoriously tough to figure out, but many Microsoft customers don't have to since they obtain software through volume licensing agreements. But for several months earlier this year, Microsoft's Volume Licensing Service Center Website was plagued by glitches, wreaking havoc on partners' ability to conduct business.

Microsoft has fixed these issues, but there are still partners who aren't huge fans of its volume licensing polices, particularly in virtualization.

Prior to this year, Microsoft required customers to buy a separate license to access their Windows operating system in a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) environment. Microsoft has since changed that virtualization policy, but still requires a Software Assurance plan, and partners still aren't happy about it.


Although Microsoft has loosened its virtualization licensing terms, partner say they've seen customers walk away from virtualization deals over the Software Assurance requirement, and they'd like to see this go away.

Microsoft's Security Reputation

Even the most ardent Microsoft haters in security research circles admit the company has made strides in improving the security of its products. Microsoft marketing now leads with security, and the company can claim that Windows 7 is its most secure OS to date without much dispute.

And yet, Microsoft is still regularly roasted for security shortcomings. The company has dealt with a string of zero day vulnerabilities in Windows this year, and every time one crops up, the old criticisms surface once again. A lot of this stems from the cynical view that Microsoft simply didn't devote enough of the billions it reaped from its Windows monopoly to making the OS more secure.


Security experts are aware that Microsoft is making progress, but popular opinion is much more resistant to logic and prevailing evidence. That means Microsoft will continue to be a popular punching bag for those unfortunate PC owners who get infected by malware.