My recent post on the importance of Angry Birds and Chrome OS led into a side conversation in the discussion thread regarding browser integration in the OS and the historical position of Microsoft on this issue. TechRepublic member nwallette responded, “What has Microsoft done for the last 20 years other than rest on their laurels?” This kind of irrational dislike for Microsoft is common in the forums. In fact, I’d argue that it’s seen more frequently than Linux or Apple bashing. But let’s take a moment and really think about nwallette’s statement.

In the last 20 years, Microsoft has consistently challenged the market to be better. They’ve invested billions of dollars in R&D to develop new products that have kept the market innovative, interesting, and progressive. OS X, iOS, and even Linux wouldn’t have come so far along if they weren’t trying to catch up and compete with Microsoft’s global dominance of the desktop GUI-based OS.

Microsoft has also challenged hardware makers and content delivery services. They’ve defined every aspect of our digital lives. There isn’t anyone, not even the most die hard Penguinista, drinking from the Fountain of the Temple of Linux, who hasn’t had their personal computing experience directly influenced by Microsoft.

I suppose I get the sour grapes, especially among Linux loyalists. There’s probably at least some truth to the claims that Microsoft actively did underhanded things to stay dominant. It isn’t just the fact alone that Microsoft consistently delivered a better consumer experience that resulted in their astronomical lead over all of the competition. Most of it? Sure – but not all of it.

Microsoft has undoubtedly influenced all of the great tech companies to come out of the San Jose valley. So, if anyone has “rested on their laurels” for the last 20 years, Microsoft deserves to – and those are mighty successful laurels to rest upon.

To be fair, Microsoft has had as many missteps as any other technology company that has been around as long. No one is arguing that things have been running smoothly since the release of Windows Vista. But how much of that was actually Microsoft’s fault?

One of the biggest difficulties Microsoft had over the past decade was competing with Apple’s brilliant advertising campaigns. The more I look at this period in retrospect, the more I’m convinced that there was a well organized grassroots propaganda campaign to undermine the influence, credibility, and general reputation of Microsoft.

You don’t need to wear tin foil hats to see that Microsoft found itself fighting against an onslaught of *nix propeller heads shortly after the turn of the century. In particular, Google was a huge proponent of FOSS and closely aligned at that time with Apple. The Linux community harassed Microsoft into making radical changed to the entire architecture of their flagship OS. The irony of those changes were that they made the OS far more *nix-like, and the *nix crowd was well aware of this. They also knew that those changes would drive Windows loyalists crazy.

When upset Windows users started abandoning Windows for OS X in significant numbers, the *nix community was on the leading edge of attacking Windows for things like “Windows Access Control” being “too chatty” in Vista. Sure, it wasn’t perfect when it was released, and it needed fine tuning – but anyone with personal integrity must admit that it was modeled directly after *nix user account restrictions and root escalation philosophies.

Microsoft lost mostly on perception over the last 10 years. And by losing, I really mean, “Charlie Sheen could take lessons on what it means to be ‘winning’ from Microsoft.” Microsoft OS and software platforms still dominate the vast bulk of end user personal and corporate computing experiences. They also own most of the back office. And for serious gamers, the Xbox 360 is still leading the pack (over the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Wii), despite countless setbacks and challenges.

The notable failures at Microsoft have been the Zune, Windows Mobile, and Vista. But again, Vista was largely an assassination job by Apple and the FOSS / *nix communities – while Zune and Windows Mobile were certainly failures to compete against Apple.

On the other hand, as a personal philosophy, I subscribe to the idea that certain actions that punish for success are counter-productive, and I wonder if Microsoft may have lost its way partially because it’s so frequently been the target of witch hunts and inquisitions based almost solely on what it has achieved.

Rather than let the market sort things out, they’ve been prevented from doing things that would have challenged the competition to innovate. Face it, the OS X and iOS revolutions came along independent of what Microsoft was or wasn’t doing. I don’t believe that the frequent anti-trust investigations and other legal actions against Microsoft had any significant impact on the eventual arrival of the iOS smartphone. And while it might not have been Apple, the ideas that are expressed in the iPhone would have eventually broken out as a public success.

There was an evolution – and the smart technophiles know how to trace it from an origin in the Newton through the Palm devices, to the WinMo line of PDAs, and later phones, full circle to the arrival and subsequent domination of the iPhone. The irony is that a beaten and defensive Microsoft had to pull a failing Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy to put them on the right track to deliver this. It was in their best interest to have a viable competitor, even if the hubris and poor execution of that competitor had pushed them to the abyss of corporate dissolution. But it sure feels good to blame Microsoft.

In the meantime, constant legal action and government investigations have turned Microsoft into a neurotic corporate organization that fights within its own walls for any number of reasons that only employees of the Redmond giant can seem to understand. They’re barely able to execute because their corporate identity is so badly fractured and misaligned that different departments actively sabotage one another.

And by all accounts, the FOSS philosophy-backed corporate organizations that stand ready to take over Microsoft’s title look far more frightening in their scope and ambition than Redmond ever was. Two decades down the road, after constant abuse from Google, Facebook, and Apple, we may wish for the return of the good old 1990s, with our personal privacy and dignity.