Pick a card, any card

forced. tr.v.

1. To compel through pressure or necessity: I forced myself to practice daily. He was forced to take a second job.

2. To gain by the use of force or coercion: She forced a confession from the suspect.

3. To inflict or impose relentlessly: He forced his ideas upon the group.

Why the language lesson, you ask? An associate of mine recently said

“If MS did things that harmed users then the users wouldn’t buy the products. Nobody is forced to buy [their] products; people can and do buy offerings from IBM, Sun, Oracle, Apple. They can choose to run LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP] freeware. In some cases they do. In other cases they don’t. People buy products because they meet their needs.”

My associate was rght, of course: Microsoft has never said “if you don’t buy Windows XP we’ll kill your daughter”. (Well, not that I’ve heard, anyway.)

Yet the comment showed a distinct lack of understanding of the word “forced”. Certainly, people and companies can buy what they want: it’s their money. But like a magician who seemingly allows you to choose freely from a deck of cards, while in fact pushing a particular card into your fingers, sometimes having a choice and being able to freely use that choice are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

There are thousands of people who use Microsoft products—specifically Windows—because everyone in their particular universe uses Microsoft products, and to use their freedom of choice would result (they believe) in an inability to operate effectively within that universe. This is one of the main reasons Microsoft continues to hold such a large market-share: people use it because “everyone else uses it”.

To be sure, there are some people who buy Windows and x86-based hardware because it’s the least-expensive system they can get from a brand-name company; or because it successfully meets their current and future needs; or because they genuinely like the OS and the hardware it runs on.

And then there are those who purchased Windows on an x86 machine because all of their clients, friends and business associates were using Windows, and that made it difficult (though not impossible) to buy a machine that, from everything they may have heard or read, was incompatible with Windows.

They may have wanted to do things that are difficult on a Windows machine; they may have wanted hardware or software functionality that doesn’t exist or is expensive on Windows. They may have wanted spiffy-looking hardware that meshed with their decor.

But if doing so would make it hard to interoperate with the machines that exist within their universe, they had to make a different choice.

Was that consumer “forced” to buy a Windows machine?

Let’s rephrase that question with one of the definitions from above.

Was that consumer “compelled through pressure or necessity” to buy a Windows machine?

Without question, I’d have to say, duh! The “pressure” comes from “everyone else is using it” (accurate or not); the “necessity” is from the need to easily interoperate with “everyone” (again, ignoring the possible inaccuracy of the statement).

My associate then questioned why so many people are using Windows if it’s an inferior product, implying that people don’t buy inferior products, or that they don’t stay in the marketplace very long, and that “most people prefer Microsoft software as a computing platform”.

In reality, people make all kinds of decisions having nothing to do with quality. If people could, a whole butt-full of them would prefer to drive a BMW or a Mercedes, but they can’t afford them, so they drive a Kia or a Honda.

They would like to have a new car every year or two, but they can’t, so they drive cars that are 15 years old.

Now, you’re probably saying that if a BMW were cheaper, more people could afford it, but you’d be missing one important point: BMWs cost more because they provide higher quality: they’re better designed, with better parts.

Jetblue, which I have flown and enjoyed, keeps their fares low by not providing food, having fewer planes and a smaller crew than American Airlines. They pay their crew less than American, and have they have less experience.

Jetblue is making money because people are willing to put up with some inconvenience if it sames them a significant amount of money.

It’s a trade-off people have been making forever.

Even with computers.

People often choose their computers based on cost and compatibility: firstly, it’s the cheapest computer they can afford (and damn being able to do certain things with it); and secondly, it’s the seemingly-most-compatible (and damn being able to do things faster/easier).

And then there are those who don’t get to choose their computers at all, like my friends the teachers whose school gave them Dell computers, which Dell gave the school at no cost (that’s “free” for those playing along at home).

In giving away computers, Dell makes it near-impossible for people to make an informed computing choice. By giving away a wintel computer (“WINdows-inTEL”, or machines that have Intel-based chips (generically x86) and ship with Windows OS), it extends the wintel cartel by convicing other people to then purchase a wintel machine to “be compatibile” with their friends, family and business associates.

My friends, who might have otherwise considered a Macintosh because it met some of their needs, rejected Macintosh because Dell gave away computers. They never got the chance to make an informed choice, yet they count among vast army of “Windows users”, making it more difficult for others to make real choice. Now, sure, they could have “chosen” to spend $1000 and get a laptop from Apple, but that’s a Hobson’s choice, “an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative.”

Giving something away will often get people to use that thing, even if it doesn’t meet all of their needs. If Kia gave away their cars, there’d be more Kias on the road. That wouldn’t make Kia a better car.

(The difference, of course, is that driving a Kia doesn’t make it more likely that others in your universe will also drive Kias, because there is no perceived compatibility problem — your friend can drive your Kia as easily as her Beemer.)

And as for “most people prefer[ing]” Microsoft, that implies that, given two machines at the same price, and the same marketshare, and no disadvantage for choosing one over the other, that people would pick Microsoft.

I don’t think there are very many people who would make that choice.