Defending Microsoft

Covering Microsoft news, as I do, can get somewhat schizophrenic. If you've been reading Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE for a while, you've seen the alternating praise and damnation I direct toward the company, and you probably wonder whether my mental constitution is in order. But Microsoft is a big company, and pinning down Microsoft as a unit is growing increasingly difficult. For example, condemning Microsoft for its actions that led to the antitrust trial was easy, but how many people at the company were involved in those actions? Microsoft's product groups are so numerous and separate that the company's biggest competition generally comes from within. If Microsoft breaks up, something tells me that the breakup will happen naturally, from within.

Today, with Windows XP hurtling toward its October release, a number of forces have allied to prevent Microsoft from releasing this product. Most of these entities are Microsoft competitors, eager to jump on the bandwagon of bad press and cause as much damage as possible. The remainder consists primarily of privacy police, some proponents in the federal government, and other special interest groups. This amazing groundswell of opposition against an OS that, quite frankly, is exactly what most consumers have been looking for makes me wonder who these groups actually represent—they can't possibly represent consumers.

As was the case with the original Microsoft antitrust trial a few years ago, this summer of discontent has elicited the opinion of every closet pundit on the planet. Opinions are a pet peeve of mine. I'm troubled when I see anyone with a public forum letting opinion get in the way of fact. I received a "did you see this?" email Friday, pointing me to an article by Mercury News reporter Dan Gillmor. Gillmor thinks that the government should block XP's release, and he's entitled to his opinion. The problem is that nearly every reason Gillmor lists for condoning this action is wrong. Let's examine several excerpts from Gillmor's article.

  • "Microsoft pretended to allow more competition on the desktop by saying that PC makers could remove the Internet Explorer icon from the desktop, although not the software code underneath. That's not much of a concession. . . ."
  • Sure, the concession might have meant more 2 years ago, but Microsoft's decision to make this change satisfies the court's wishes. This concession lets PC makers and end users remove the Internet Explorer (IE) user interface from Windows and use the Internet client of their choice. I've tested XP Release Candidate 2 (RC2), and removing IE is indeed easy.

  • "With transcendent hypocrisy, Microsoft complained about the damage to consumer choice when America Online said it would pay Compaq Computer for rights to be the exclusive online service on the desktop of Compaq PCs. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft re-asserted its requirement that PC makers give its Microsoft Network at least equal billing with any other online services."
  • This topic has me especially riled—specifically because no one has a problem with market-leader AOL subverting the Windows desktop with annoying pop-up ads for AOL service. Does anyone seriously believe that this approach is what consumers are asking for? Furthermore, AOL's offer to pay PC makers $30 a head for new subscribers is sickening and reminiscent of the mobster kickbacks of the 1950s. The only hypocrisy in this event was AOL's supposed shock at Microsoft's retaliation. Clearly, AOL was counting on anti-Microsoft sentiment to protect its clandestine maneuvers.

  • "Microsoft removed the Java environment from XP, thereby breaking thousands of Web sites that use Java to add features—such as stock tickers and other little 'applets.'"
  • Has anyone met a Java applet they actually liked and used every day? Good for you: You can download the Microsoft Java runtime—for free—from XP's Windows Update. Where's the conspiracy? And why is it OK for Microsoft to bundle Java but not IE or Windows Media Player (WMP)? This situation is a clear case of double standards.

  • "Microsoft will force XP users to sign up for its Passport authentication system if they want to use key XP features."

This one is just dead wrong. XP doesn't include one key feature that relies on Passport. Features that rely on Passport include Windows Messenger and some optional online services, such as the photo printing services, that you might invoke from a wizard. But third parties, not Microsoft, provide most of these services, so how Microsoft benefits is unclear.

  • "Microsoft is bundling new products into XP in ways that block competition, from photography software and instant messaging to video and audio playback."
  • Microsoft does bundle WMP, various photo and music wizards, and other software in XP, but all these applications give users solutions out of the box. How does this approach block competition? Kodak users can still install Kodak-specific software if they want to use that software instead of Microsoft's bundled solutions. A wide gulf exists between shutting out competition (e.g., by integrating IE into Windows solely for that reason) and providing users with applications they want (e.g., by providing users with a simple way to acquire photos from their Kodak digital camera). Kodak wants its customers to be locked into Kodak-specific solutions, which will keep these customers paying the company for the rest of their lives. Remind me again why this approach is a better deal for consumers?

  • "Microsoft has added 'code-signing' measures—verification, supposedly, so that downloads will be safe—that could scare computer users away from using software that competes with Microsoft's offerings."
  • Actually, this verification software will help keep XP stable and secure by ensuring that drivers and other software pass Microsoft's testing measurements—that's a good thing. But the reality is that you can download and install any software.

  • "Windows XP imposes harsh controls on users to prevent unauthorized copying of the software. If you reinstall the OS after upgrading your hardware in ways that Microsoft considers questionable, you'll need Microsoft's permission."

This statement is apparently a harsh attack on Windows Product Activation, an admittedly easy target. But this statement contains two mistakes: First, Microsoft designed Product Activation to prevent software piracy—primarily through hard-disk imaging. Preventing piracy is a good thing. Second, users won't have to explain to Microsoft why they need to reactivate Windows. The author suggests that users will have to appear before a Microsoft grand tribunal, cap in hand, hoping for benevolence when asking to reactivate Windows. Such is not the case, and stating otherwise is simply a scare tactic. No one likes Product Activation less than I do, but reactivation takes only a simple phone call to Microsoft's reactivation center.

Gillmor concludes that the government must stop XP, even though the OS provides some real and palpable benefits to both consumers and PC makers. I can't agree with this conclusion—and not just because I can easily debunk his supporting evidence. XP is an important release for all end users, especially those that have never sampled Win2K. Denying them this product—and denying the industry the surge in sales that will result—smacks far too much of Big Brother and a sadly American desire to appease special interest groups that don't always speak for the greater population. If ever a product was crying out for the voice of the people, it's XP. And I suspect that after XP's release, the product will meet with wide praise.

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