Mind Dump, Tech And Life Blog
written by Ivan Alenko
published under license bootleg
posted in category Copied Stuff / Tech
posted at 10. Mar '17

Why I hate Microsoft (4) - World domination

“I am Billgatus of Borg. Resistance is futile.”

Microsoft has been compared to the Borg Collective more than once. Indeed, you don’t have to be a hard-core Star Trek fan to notice the similarity between Microsoft and the Borg. Microsoft’s marketing methods have always shown a certain hunger for power, but lately an undisguised megalomania has set in.


Competitors beware

It’s long been known that to oppose Microsoft means certain death (commercially speaking of course). Microsoft’s marketing division just tramples the corpse of anyone who thinks he can shift it left or right. In fact, during its recent competitive struggles with information provider Google, Microsoft has stated that they want to destroy Google. Not compete with it, but destroy it. Google provides some of the most popular and useful services currently available on the Internet, but Microsoft would like to see it destroyed. The fact that they have not been able to carry out this threat hardly matters; their position is clear.

Microsoft’s stragegy (and, therefore, its technological developments) are directed only at extracting more and more money from the customer, and at continuing to do so in the future. The customers’ needs are irrelevant. Microsoft’s preferred way of accomplishing this prime directive is to sabotage alternatives to Microsoft products and to use any means available to eliminate competitors, rather than to bring real technological innovation.

Microsoft’s sheer marketing power has grown to the point where it can hurt competitors even by merely threatening them. We see this curious effect throughout the entire software market: as soon as Microsoft targets a certain part of the market, something happens to the competing market leaders. They start to falter. The value of their stock market shares drop. Their strategy becomes erratic and looses focus, and ultimately the quality of their products suffers. Novell and Netscape, to name a few good examples, have lost a good deal of their market share this way. Of course these companies have made mistakes. Of course they have ruined the potential of superior products with bungled marketing and disastrous commercial strategies. Of course Apple, IBM and all the others have done the same. Of course they only have themselves to blame for an inadequate reaction to a threat they should and could have expected. Of course the ability and the guts to deal with competitive pressure is a required part of doing business: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But even so, their fairly typical behavior is a good illustration of the blind fear that Microsoft’s business practices have managed to instill in would-be competitors, because everyone knows that Microsoft’s use of FUD campaigns, corruption of standards, forced partner agreements, product bundling and other monopolist practices have become almost impossible to counter.

This fear is not without ground. Competitors who offer alternative and sometimes better technology are ruthlessly crushed, not because MS offers a better product but because Microsoft can manipulate the users and the software market to cut off anyone’s oxygen supply without even making a dent in their profits, and still have their marketing division make enough noise to drown out all the other players in the market.

Forced sales

Microsoft has had PC manufacturers by the short-and-curlies for years: if integrators wanted to pre-load an OEM version of Windows on the computers they sold, then they had to discontinue all products from Microsoft’s competitors. If they wouldn’t sign such a contract to bundle a pre-loaded version of Windows with all their shipped systems, they’d face a hefty increase in Windows license fees. In other words: either they had to sell a copy of Windows with all their shipped systems and nothing else, or they would face retaliatory measures from Microsoft, which meant that they wouldn’t be able to offer a copy of Windows at a competitive price. Only in recent years the largest PC manufacturers have been allowed to support Linux to a certain degree. (Note that the above may not apply in all countries and to all OEM manufacturers. Local policies may differ, and smaller system integrators pay different prices and have different contracts with Microsoft than huge companies do. Your mileage may vary.)

This strategy of forced sales is an old one: the same has been done in the past when PC vendors were forced to bundle Windows 3.1 with new PCs in order to be allowed to ship MS-DOS. Even before they modified Windows 3.x to crash when it detected the presence of DR-DOS instead of MS-DOS, Microsoft adopted several tactics to destroy DR-DOS. The most damaging of these was tying PC makers into secret per-processor license agreements, which meant that they paid for Microsoft’s MS-DOS whether they shipped it with the PC or not, foreclosing the most important route to market.

Also note how Microsoft makes is cumbersome to legitimately re-use a Windows XP or Vista license. The license is tied to the computer’s hardware, both with the activation system and with the requirement to affix the serial number of the license to the computer’s exterior. To remove the software from one machine and transfer it to another one is a pain, even though such a transfer is normal practice with other software products, and the Windows End User License Agreement (EULA) does not prohibit it. Yes, it is possible to legally remove Windows from one PC and install it on another one, but that requires a telephone call to Microsoft to have the transfer authorized.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Microsoft arbitrarily changed the OEM license agreement several years after the release of Windows XP, to state that replacing the mainboard of a computer essentially creates a new computer, which requires a new license for the operating system, and they sent a memo to its OEM partners requesting to enforce this new policy.

It is interesting to note is that second hand and refurbished personal computers meke up about 10% of the world’s global PC sales. Many of these second hand computers are shipped with the Windows license that they were originally sold with when they were new, but during the refurbishing process (which includes wiping the harddisk) a new, and often generic, version of Windows is installed. Microsoft does not allow this; the EULA demands that the original disks be used for the re-install of Windows and that the original disks be shipped with the refurbished PC. In practice this is often impossible, which gives traders in refurbished PCs only three options: violate the EULA and risk legal repercussions; buy a new Windows license and thereby drive up the price of a refurbished PC to a point where it won’t sell, or just close up shop right away.

Another needless restriction is that an OEM version shipped with one brand of computer will not accept a (legal) serial number issued with another hardware brand. This can make it difficult or impossible to modify (e.g. add specific drivers to) an OEM version of XP, or to re-install XP if the original CD (but not the license) shipped with the hardware has been lost. In spite of the fact that you have paid for a legal end user license, the licensing system effectively prevents you from using it.

The EULA for Office is just as brutal in its own way: if you want to use just Word, PowerPoint or Excel on a single PC, you still have to license the entire Office package. Nor are you permitted to use Word on one PC and Excel on another under the same license; you must buy a separate license for the entire Office suite for each PC.

But hey - if you’re working in education, Microsoft wants to be your friend! For a few bucks per seat you’ll get all the licenses you want. Since budgets in the educational sector are usually tight, a batch of almost free software is a godsend. Or is it? Maybe not. The small print in these “education-friendly” licenses prohibits running anything but Microsoft products on the systems that run under an educational license, including free Open Source alternatives (e.g. Star Office). They’d make it illegal to mention non-MS products to students at all if they could find a way to pull that off. Nor is this the only example of Microsoft meddling with the curriculum. In August 2002 Microsoft made a controversial donation of 2.3 million dollars to the University of Waterloo, Canada, on the condition that the university would teach their students Microsoft’s new C# programming language as a mandatory subject for students entering the university’s Electrical and Computer Engineering programme.

With these things in mind it’s rather ironic that as part of their settlement with the DoJ for anti-competitive practices in November 2001, Microsoft agreed to supply schools with software, hardware and services. What a great chance for Microsoft to kill two birds with one stone. They get to control the curriculum and expose the students to a Microsoft-only environment before they enter the work force, and they meet the conditions of the settlement at the same time!

Needless to say that Microsoft’s efforts to rigidly control PC suppliers have been very effective. If you’re a consumer, you’ll find that it’s nearly impossible to buy an A-brand PC without a bundled Windows license. Recently some large PC manufacturers offer Linux to the corporate market, but these exceptions are still few and far between, and an A-brand PC without an operating system (which would in itself be quite legitimate) is generally unavailable. On a propaganda webpage aimed squarely at OEM resellers, Microsoft went to considerable lengths to blacken the reputation of what it terms “Naked PCs”. A Naked PC is a PC that you can (or rather, you can’t) buy without an operating system. Try it, you’ll find it’s really quite difficult in any case, and Microsoft wants OEMs to make it even more difficult by refusing to sell you one. “Think of selling a house without a roof - selling your customers Naked PCs leaves them equally exposed”, says Microsoft. “If you allow your customers to buy Naked PCs - placing them at risk of acquiring pirated operating systems elsewhere - you expose them to legal risks, viruses, and frustrating technical troubles.” In other words the customer has to buy Windows, it’s for his own good. In fact, it should be made illegal to buy a PC without Windows, because Microsoft continues with: “And even if your customer manages to illegally acquire and install operating systems elsewhere…” Apparently it’s either inconceivable or immoral to consider alternatives for Windows, and installing products such as Linux or FreeBSD is a crime. No Windows? We’ll get you…

In May 2001, Microsoft took this idiocy even further. Several local hardware integrators in the US were offered rewards for reporting their customers who buy PCs without a Windows user license. Yes, I’m serious. If you buy a PC and you plan to run Linux or FreeBSD on it, you automatically become a suspect and Microsoft puts a price on your head.

And there’s no way out of this nonsense. In cases where large customers build their own PCs in order to avoid putting too much money in Microsoft’s pocket, they can’t use their volume license programs as the basis for installing Windows. Those volume programs only allow upgrades of systems that have been purchased with original Windows licenses. They can’t even save some money and build their own computers or buy them from a local whitebox shop without also tacking on a Windows license. By contract the OEMs are required to report any customer that requests ‘naked PCs’ and it often triggers a software contract audit by Microsoft, sometimes followed by seven figure surprise bills.

Fear campaign

Microsoft will enforce the conditions in their license agreements with a heavy hand, if need be. Or rather, they use the BSA (Business Software Alliance) as their enforcer. The BSA is a trade group that helps enforce copyrights and licensing provisions for large business software manufacturers. Steve Ball, CEO of the famous guitar string manufacturing company Ernie Ball, said in an interview:

“I became an open-source guy because we’re a privately owned company, a family business that’s been around for 30 years, making products and being a good member of society. We’ve never been sued, never had any problems paying our bills. And one day I got a call that there were armed marshals at my door talking about software license compliance. […] They basically shut us down. We were out of compliance I figure by about 8 percent (out of 72 desktops). […]

How did this happen? We pass our old computers down. The guys in engineering need a new PC, so they get one and we pass theirs on to somebody doing clerical work. Well, if you don’t wipe the hard drive on that PC, that’s a violation. Even if they can tell a piece of software isn’t being used, it’s still a violation if it’s on that hard drive.”

Similar practices abound in Europe. Many companies in Holland have received threatening letters from Microsoft (and Microsoft lawyers) with thinly veiled accusations of software piracy. Apparently Microsoft assumes that large companies should have at least a certain number of Windows and Office licenses, and at least as many Office licenses as they have Windows licenses. Large companies with a smaller number of licenses than Microsoft thought they should have were ordered to present complete and accurate information about their numbers of servers, PCs and software licenses. Failure to comply with this order in full would result in audits and legal procedures. Apparently Microsoft considers it unthinkable that PCs can be used for purposes other than running Windows or Office.

A few months later Microsoft hired a law firm to target an even broader selection of small businesses, who were more or less ordered to submit a complete and comprehensive list of all Microsoft products in their possession. Again there was the thinly veiled threat that failure to comply with this order would have “legal consequences”.

What other type of company but an utterly ruthless monopolist would have the arrogance to threaten and intimidate their own customers like this?

Killing off the competition

If you’re a competing software developer, things are even worse. A Microsoft version of the software that keeps you in business could be integrated with the next release of Windows, or given away for free as a separate product. Microsoft has used this and other tactics (such as deliberate vaporware announcements) many times in the past to smother innovation and break innovative developers.

If you’re too big to be eliminated like that, Microsoft still controls whether or not your software will be compatible with future releases of Microsoft products. A classic example is MS Office on OS/2 Warp: several components (most noticably Word) were tailored to crash on OS/2. This strategy has continued ever since: when Windows XP came out, it wouldn’t run the then-current versions of RealPlayer and Quicktime… but of course XP did come with an integrated MS Media player. Several years earlier, when I subjected a brand-new Compaq Deskpro (running NT Workstation) to the Windows 2000 Upgrade Compatibility Check, guess what happened: all installed Novell products were found to be incompatible with Windows 2000. What a surprise. Fortunately my trashcan was Windows 2000 Ready…

Apart from the above measures, there’s always brute force. The blind fear that Microsoft’s legal department has managed to instill in some independent developers (especially the smaller companies) is nicely illustrated by what happened to Ghisler & co, a small Swiss developer. Ghisler’s primary product, a file manager that is essentially a Windows version of previous DOS-based file managers such as Norton Commander, is especially popular among power users and administrators. Ghisler had shipped Windows Commander for no less than nine years, when a letter from Microsoft claimed ownership of the word ‘Windows’ in the product name ‘Windows Commander’ and demanded that the name be changed. Ghisler not only immediately complied wih the demand to avoid legal repercussions, but also put Microsoft trademark notices on the homepage of their website, released a bulletin that avoided the word ‘Microsoft’ entirely but only referred to “the owner of the trademark ‘Windows’”, and even requested their users not to make negative comments in their forums. Such is the reputation of Microsoft’s lawyers.

Nor is this reputation undeserved. Shortly after Ghisler & co required a change of underwear, the seventeen year old Canadian Mike Rowe decided, mainly as a lark, to put ‘soft’ behind his name and register his own domain. Microsoft’s lawyers then demanded that Rowe cease and desist his “copyright infringements” and hand over his domain name. Rowe suggested compensation. Microsoft’s lawyers offered Rowe 10 (ten) dollars. Rowe did not consider that a serious offer and demanded more. The Microsoft lawyers then hit him with a 25-page document that accused him of price gauging and promised legal actions. As said, Rowe was all of 17 years old at the time.

By now the field is littered with the carcasses of software companies that held a share of the market that Microsoft decided they wanted. For example, does anyone remember an upstart company named Argonaut? They were one of the few small companies that made excellent 3D rendering software in the early nineties, years before the technology became widely available on the PC. We had to wait for it all those years, though, because Microsoft bought Rendermorphic, one of Argonaut’s their competitors, and started to give away their software licenses for free. This killed off all developments at Argonaut and the other small 3D developers of those days in short order, and it meant the end of another piece of innovation.

Vaporware works

Selling vaporware is one of Microsoft’s favorite tactics to sabotage their competitors. The idea is simple: announce a revolutionary, new product or technology that will make your competitors’ products obsolete right away, and everyone becomes reluctant to invest in those competing products. By the time you eventually release something (that may or may not resemble whatever you announced) the competition will be gone, or at least on the way out. And if truth be told, Microsoft has this technique down to a fine art. Few others are as good at it as Redmond’s marketeers.

A good example of their masterful control of vaporware selling was the initial announcement of the .Net initiative. .Net was essentially announced as a whole new product line, to which all existing products were going to be converted. It was going to be the future of computing, if we were to believe Microsoft. And it was hard not to believe them, because they were already advertising “.Net Connected Software” as if it were an available product instead of a concept that hadn’t even laid down a set of final specifications yet. And it worked: in an attempt to capitalize on the hysteria, third parties were falling over themselves to jump on the .Net bandwagon. It rapidly became a fashionable buzzword that CEO’s hastily declared commitment to. The press especially paid a lot of lip service to .Net, and all major book and magazine publishers were in a hurry to flood the market with .Net publications. Whole series of books about .Net were being released, regardless the fact that .Net hadn’t materialized yet and even the exact specifications did not yet exist!

Eventually all .Net turned out to be was a framework for the development of network applications. As such it’s a typical Microsoft product: it’s an attractive environment for application developers, but with serious drawbacks. It offers powerful features that often don’t perform very well, and it ties developers firmly to the Microsoft platform.

Sales: from promises to lies

Microsoft Products are sold not on their technical merits, but by brute force and sheer marketing violence. IT Managers read in their investment magazines that Microsoft Is The Future. They attend a few management seminars or other sponsored events, they are exposed to a few sales presentations that are long on promises and short on facts, and so they become convinced that they have to switch to Microsoft products. After all, everyone is using Windows so it must be a good thing. Of course the same thing could be said about pot, with as much validity. The only difference is that you can’t Just Say No to Windows.

Microsoft products are peddled to the corporate sector mainly through high-level selling. Large-account managers directly approach the top executives of the companies they wish to target. During tasteful lunch meetings they spin a glorious tale about how more investments in the Microsoft platform would have “strategic advantages” for the whole company. They make sure to use terms like “installed base” and “target threshold” repeatedly. They cite success stories, they mention Fortune 500 companies, they emphasize the importance of keeping strategic decisions on the executive level. They mention in passing that Windows has removed the need for computer techies in making informed decisions about computing, so now boardroom executives are qualified to select operating systems as part of their corporate strategy planning. And if the technical staff happens to disagree about the wisdom of switching to Windows, well, that’s only because the techies feel that their turf is being threatened by the introduction of an operation system that removes the need for skilled personnel, and because they lack insight into strategic matters.

Of course these marketroids never even mention such unimportant details as the need for more and bigger servers than other products would require, or the fact that uptime and availability are only a fraction of that of competing products. Oh no. They also gloss over what people in the field think about what goes on under the hood of Microsoft products (after all, techies have never been realists) and they blissfully ignore the numerous implementation problems (excuse me, I mean ‘challenges’) that come with each new version of any Microsoft product you care to mention. Instead they emphasize that all large companies have “switched to Windows”, so it has to be a Good Thing. They promise that the latest Windows Server will speed up the business and save millions of dollars per year, but of course they forget to mention that they’re comparing it to Windows NT4, released in 1996. And if all this doesn’t do the job, they cinch the deal with an offer that the customer can’t refuse, such as a 50% discount on software licenses, and if it’s about a choice between a Windows environment and Open Source software, they’ll even happily give away licenses for free. Not that those licenses are so overpriced that they’d still make a profit at half the price or less, oh no, of course not. The offer should merely be seen as a quantity discount for an especially valued customer.

A real world example

I’m not making this up. I’ve seen it happen in large companies all around me. This is how the game is being played. The following response from a British reader (a corporate user who wishes to remain anonymous) illustrates this fairly well:

We decided to use FreeBSD, Apache, mySQL+PostgreSQL, Perl+PHP [as Open Source alternatives to Microsoft products]. The company I am working with is a pure-Microsoft company, i.e. they only used to use Microsoft software, and they even didn’t know anything about Open Source. […] When the local Microsoft rep “heard” about it (someone inside the company tipped them off), they asked to meet my team(!) and discuss the reasons for our Open Source use.

In fact, it was a meeting of 2 1/2 hours with 3 Microsoft sales/consulting reps trying to persuade us not to use Open Source (mainly they talked about Linux until we told them that we don’t use Linux and that we don’t understand what they are talking about :-) because “it is inherently insecure, unreliable” and, what was their biggest argument, “there is nobody in this country who could give you any support for Open Source”, etc. Also, they wanted (actually they required!) us to tell them the reasons why we are using Open Source instead of the already introduced and long-time proven Microsoft Software in this company. I started explaining […] and when we came to the point of ‘Licensing Costs’, they offered us to give the Windows server licenses for free.

I am not kidding. When I told them that I’d need at least ten licenses and at $400/each, too much for me to begin with, they offered to give us the license for free - and not only for now, but also for the future when we kept working on Microsoft.

Commercial brute force is not the way to introduce new software standards. If software retail stores open at midnight so that people can rush off with a new Windows ‘95 package the very minute it is released, it’s obvious that OS implementation is no longer based on common sense or rational decisions, but merely on a stampeding software market that has been hyped into hysteria. It’s obvious that something here is very, very wrong.

Keeping the customer ignorant

I’m not into conspiracy theories, but still I think it’s interesting to note how Microsoft has progressed from an upstart software company to a party that attempts to control not only the market but even public opinion.

Educating the masses was an important step in Microsoft’s strategy. It had long been common knowledge that “computers are difficult to use”. Indeed, a system like Unix or DOS has never been known for its user-friendliness, requiring the user to use a keyboard to type commands like ‘ls’, ‘rm’ (Unix), ‘REN’ or ‘DRIVPARM’ (DOS). The steep learning curve ensured that users would eventually be fairly computer-literate (which was good) but also that few would succeed in or even start the time-consuming, difficult and expensive learning process (which was definitely bad).

The Graphic User Interface (GUI) in MS Windows put an end to all that. It offered an attractive, accessible and friendly-looking interface, designed so that it wouldn’t scare the novice user. This has played a large role in making the PC available to the masses, and Microsoft deserves due credit for that, even though GUI’s aren’t and have never been Microsoft technology.

But in their zeal to shield the poor novice users from confusing or intimidating glimpses at the underlying technology that might frighten them, Microsoft has actually oversimplified the interface. Users simply drag and drop, unable to determine the difference between local ‘folders’ and those on network servers. They don’t know that a local ‘folder’ is not the same as a server mapping, and they’re unaware that ‘My Documents’ is in fact a subdirectory that may reside on a local disk or on a network server. In fact, usually they have no idea what a subdirectory is. So they simply right- click a document (which is represented by an icon) to ‘send it’ to a ‘mail recipient’ without knowing that they are in fact pushing an uncompressed 12 megabyte BMP file through an E-mail server and an Internet link.

Even worse: not only are users ignorant of what happens in response to a simple mouse click, but the Windows environment actually makes it difficult for them to find out. At least the pre-Windows user interfaces eventually stimulated the user to gain some insight in what he or she was doing, and what the results of seemingly innocent actions could be. Nowadays even the computer-literate have trouble understanding what goes on behind the facade of the Windows GUI. Users are actually being conditioned to associate daily tasks with Window GUI elements. By the time they have managed to change their preference settings so that Windows displays filename extensions and they can see what kind of file they’re dealing with instead of just seeing ‘documents’, they’re no longer average users.

Apart from all that, expecting a systems or network administrator or an experienced user to work with the user interface that comes with Microsoft products is a bad joke at best. Imagine an operating system that won’t let you tell it what you want, but lets you point at a picture instead and then does for you what it thinks best. I can imagine a three-year-old preferring it that way, but not a mature ICT professional. Of course GUI-based system administration has its advantages, at least from a certain perspective, i.e. a Windows-using ICT manager’s perspective. Large-scale, properly set up Windows networks with a ton of hardware and GUI management tools all over the shop needn’t cost a lot in terms of machine minders, whereas a Unix or Open Source based network without these tools will need the requisite number of skilled geeks to mumble incantations over shell prompts. But this is comparing apples and pears: the geeks will serve you better than the deskilled machine minders will when something goes badly wrong (which it will). The GUI has put on a lot of weight in recent years, but in the end it serves more to restrict than to enhance, limiting the users’ understanding of, and control over, their computers and software. The GUI removes all transparency from the system, so that power users and sysadmins no longer have access to the underlying processes.

Limitations perceived as ease of use

It’s interesting to see how a lack of options is often confused with ease of use. Granted, any appliance that only has one big red button marked ‘On’ is easy to use. But don’t expect it to be useful for more than one major purpose, or otherwise flexible.

Windows advocates often argue that only Windows (and certainly not its main rival Linux) has understood the users’ needs to use a computer as a tool. They say: “Could it be perhaps that Microsoft got to be a multi million dollar company, precisely because it set out to build a simple to use, easy to understand operating system? One that just works, out of the box. Without the need to be a geek and spend all day configuring complicated services and settings every time you want to make something happen.”

One enraged reader of this paper even wrote:

“I own a computer repair centre and deal with literally thousands of home users a year. I would say 80% of my customer base are exactly that, ‘Users’. They know how to turn the thing on, they know what the big blue ‘e’ in the middle of the desktop is for. Some of them can even word process. But for the vast majority of them that’s as far as it goes.

The problem with geeks is, they seem to inhabit their own little world, where everyone is a computer ‘expert’ and all the answers are black and white. Meanwhile here in the real world companies like Microsoft understand that the majority of their customers are not. That they view their computer as a functional item, a means to an end and base their software purchasing decisions on which product will allow them to do what they need to do, as simply and as quickly as possible. Not for its technical merits or because they get aroused at the thought of tweaking their system to perfection.”

This is essentially true. A computer should be a tool, a means to an end. However, Windows advocates often confuse a lack of options with the lack of a need for options. They are right in that most users just want an appliance, rather than a complicated assembly of software that requires fine-tuning. On the other hand, an assembly of software is all they get, and turning it into a simple and reliable appliance, through fine-tuning or other means, is barely possible. And that is a real problem.

The world is full of people who make you realize why an electric hand mixer needs a warning label advising users to switch it off before licking icing from the beaters. These geniuses are far better off with, say, a well-configured Linux box, installed straight off some CD with a few mouse clicks. This will let them do their jobs and still prevent anyone without a root password from doing any damage. Windows on the other hand can be damaged by an end user through the mere installation of an application. Yet it does not offer many options, neither for the novice user nor for the professional, to track down and fix the problem, since that would expose options that are more complex than a one-click “wizard” feature. Windows is like a car with the hood welded shut. If you don’t know any better it may give you the idea that it requires no maintenance or repair… until it breaks down, and that’s when the problems really start.

Windows pulls the wool over your eyes, and it does that very well. Its many limitations are not apparent to the novice user. This is an important factor in guiding the users’ perceptions. Most average Windows users are not aware that what they perceive as simplicity is in fact a lack of sophistication. They just click on an icon, and when things do not behave as advertised they enlist the help of a support technician. If the technician is unable to adequately solve the problem due to Windows’ lack of transparency and manageability on the system level, they tend to blame the technician and not the software. Most Windows advocates (who generally call themselves power users and therefore should know better) do the same.

Closing the curtains on Windows

Contrary to popular belief, a GUI is not ergonomic. For example it requires users to take their hands off the keyboard and their eyes off the screen in order to operate the mouse during word processing, and graphic fonts and black-on-white text cause more eye strain than the old text-based equipment used to do. Neither is a GUI conducive to productivity; although the learning curve of a command line environment is steeper, after some training many users can perform most operations faster through keyboard commands than with a mouse.

Another headache for sysadmins is that GUI operations are essentially impossible to script, so that with large numbers of servers it is impractical to use the GUI to carry out installation tasks or regular maintenance tasks. Desktop users face the same problem: in the early nineties it was possible to produce large amounts of personalized correspondence using nothing but Word Perfect macros, a simple database and a few batch files. In Windows most of these jobs have to be done by hand, over and over again. In short, Microsoft tried to create products that even a fool could use, but they ended up with something that only a fool would want to use, given the chance to make an informed choice.

But then again, Microsoft’s regard for their user community is best illustrated by the useful tips in MS Word, my favorite of which has alway been “Don’t run with scissors”. And of course there was the ‘log-on help’ in Windows 2000 Professional: an explanation on how to press the Ctrl, Alt and Delete keys, complete with a graphic animation of those keys being indicated and depressed. The animated question mark icon (“Any time you need help, click me with the mouse or press the F1 key. I’ll be right here if you need me!”) in the Windows XP Professional installer is even more annoying, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the animated help in MS Office. These ‘professional versions’ target the ‘professional’ user, who is apparently assumed to be unable to handle complex operations such as accepting defaults in an install program or even logging on without animated graphics as a guideline.

Ignorant users are happy users

In all fairness, technophiles have always been exasperated by the ‘ignorance’ of non-techies. But these days we’re dealing with a generation of users that can’t even understand the need to know the basics. All they have to do is double-click on a document, and things start to happen. Of course as soon as the document’s file extension (which is hidden by default in the first place) isn’t properly associated with an application, the average user is immediately lost. Users have never been invited to learn. They’ve been told that they no longer need to know about the basics of driving, so they just expect their cars to take them wherever they want to go today.

As a result of all this, average users don’t even realize that computers and Windows aren’t a necessary combination, or that there is a distinction between operating systems and the applications that run on it. They’ve been taught to think of Windows as something that comes with your PC, or even as something that is part of your PC. They have been told that Windows XP is a multimedia environment. The idea that Windows XP is an operating system that could, but not necessarily should, run multimedia applications is completely beyond them. The thought that Windows is one of the many operating systems that could be installed on a computer is just as alien to most of them. To them all computers in the world are PC’s running Windows.

Today the user, tomorrow the world

The rot has now spread so far that this misconception affects many software and content developers. Web designers automatically assume that their web sites will be viewed on a PC, and if you’re lucky they’ll write code that runs on both Mozilla/Netscape and Microsoft browsers. (As if those were the only ones around.) Application developers usually aren’t much better either: they write software for Windows, period. Even they just don’t know any better. Even in Windows itself you can see that portions of the code have been created by junior programmers who have never known a more robust environment. Nor is this surprising. Most IT students only encounter Windows these days. Most of them have never seen a text-mode interface, they don’t know that there are other OS’s than Windows out there or how they work, and their understanding of what lies beneath the Windows GUI is rudimentary at best. They’ve never seen robust software, let alone learned how to write any. Still these students are supposed to become tomorrow’s IT workers.

Quality standards have steadily dropped. The average user routinely endures buggy software, computer crashes and loss of data. Think about it: To have several computer crashes or forced reboots a week is considered normal and acceptable! That is, by those who have never known anything but a PC with Windows, which is most of today’s user community. The thought that it’s not normal and acceptable for computers to crash or require rebooting regularly never enters their minds.

Most computer users know computer technology only through Microsoft products. They no longer learn about computing; the Windows user interface discourages anything beyond point-and-click actions. Like toddlers they point at small pictures and they think they are knowledgeable about computers, while the marketeers wax lyrical about how easy and exciting it all is, as long as we all keep buying more and more of the same junk.

And that is the basis on which many IT managers choose the platforms for their future investments! That, and the comforting knowledge that “nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft.” God help us.

Power corrupts, absolute power is even better

I used the word ‘megalomania’ above. You’ll understand why if you take a good look at Microsoft’s plans for the future. Controlling the PC market is not enough for Microsoft. In the near future we can expect to see them move into different markets.

They’re well on their way to flooding the market for handhelds with Windows CE. They’re trying to get Windows on the road by embedding it in automotive electronics. They’ve briefly courted TV networking. They spun up their marketing machine to take over the cellphone software market, starting with Ballmer’s claim that 25% of all multimedia cellphones will run Microsoft’s Smartphone 2002 operating system within three to five years. Fortunately the first releases of Smartphone were such a disaster that most cellphone manufacturers soon lost interest.

One of the most interesting new initiatives is Windows Media Center. This is a special pre-installed version of Windows XP or Vista. Windows Media Center won’t be sold separately but comes with Multimedia Entertainment Systems (which are essentially PCs with a TV tuner and a remote control). This Windows version incorporates entertainment features like DVD-playing, recording TV programmes, and an application to manage and view digital photos. It comes with a simplified user interface that can be read from across the room. None of this is very innovative, but Media Center PC is likely to be just the opening salvo in Microsoft’s bid to control home entertainment in the same way it already dominates home computing. In a few years a personal computer (or something essentially like one but with a more purpose-specific design) could be the heart of many families’ entertainment centers, and Microsoft will attempt to exercise control over it just like they do with the PC market. At WinHEC 2003 Gates presented further plans to integrate your TV, stereo, VCR, phone etc. (all of which are devices that switch on immediately and then just work) into the Windows PC (the device that doesn’t).

Microsoft has also begun to sell their own gaming hardware with the release of the Xbox gaming console. The reason that Microsoft is getting into games is not readily apparent. Their explanation that they wanted to save the world from Playstation domination is of course not to be taken seriously. As far as domination is concerned, it’s an interesting fact that IBM was Apple’s sole supplier of Power-PC chips, on which Apple’s hardware architecture was based, and which IBM produces in limited quantities. The Xbox uses several of these IBM Power-PC chips. Now convincing IBM that it would be more profitable to do business with Microsoft than with Apple was not very difficult. Fortunately for Apple the company proved agile and resilient enough to adapt, and it continues to thrive after a timely but forced switch to Intel chips. Still the way in which the Xbox forced Apple through a major change in hardware platforms is an interesting one.

Even more interesting is the simple but often overlooked fact that the Xbox is not a PC. It’s Microsoft’s first attempt at widely deploying a device that offers home entertainment, Internet access, multimedia functions and (with a few software updates) any other recreational or home application that you care to think of. Currently Microsoft’s survival is tied to the technological life cycle of the PC and Windows as a platform. The Xbox offers Microsoft a valuable opportunity to play with technology that could be the future of home entertainment and the ultimate replacement for the home PC. The fact that Microsoft has rigidly tied the Xbox to its own internet-based Xbox services (including in option to permanently disable the Xbox hardware if Microsoft detects that it has been tampered with) bear this out.

But Microsoft’s primary reasons to venture into the hardcore gaming market are actually rather simple. PCs and hardware have gotten faster and more powerful all the time, but the only applications that really tax those resources are games (and lately, but to a far lesser degree, digital video). Gamers tend to keep their hardware and the supporting operating systems up to date, and therefore games are a powerful contribution to the update frenzy that Microsoft thrives on. But game consoles have always been a competitor to the PC, and therefore a threat to Windows. Microsoft has always tried to exterminate all competition with fire and sword, but in order to do this they needed to enter the market for game consoles themselves. In the late 1990’s, through a little known and rather half-hearted deal with Sega, they tried to push Windows CE as an OS for console games. The unsurprising lack of success of this idea and the subsequent demise of Sega went largely unnoticed, but they did prove that just putting Microsoft software on a third party game box doesn’t work very well.

Therefore the Xbox was released and, being a Microsoft product, it gives MS full control over what will and what won’t run on it. Furthermore, Microsoft attempts to further control the gaming community through online services, on which more and more Xbox features will become heavily dependent in the future. This fits in with Microsoft’s plans to tie their customers down into Internet-based subscription services to protect revenues. That is why the Xbox exists. That is why Microsoft introduced the Xbox in the US on a 500 million dollar PR budget, and why they continue it in spite of the fact that the Xbox has only netted a loss since day one. Half a billion US dollars to introduce a gaming console that doesn’t even turn a profit - think about it.

Controlling the Internet

Perhaps the most important new business for Microsoft is web services. Microsoft is really getting into web content with MSN, its search engine, their ill-fated and fortunately short-lived Passport services and other, related projects. Windows XP and Vista come loaded with features designed to lure the user into buying music online (from Microsoft and their partners), have digital photos printed at the click of a mouse (through a Microsoft online service), to browse MSN (which boosts Microsoft’s advertising revenues) and to shop online (using Microsoft’s passport and payment services in the process).

With these first steps, Microsoft has begun a gradual but deliberate change. Microsoft the software monopolist is trying to become Microsoft the web services monopolist. Also note that MSN does not make any profit. Instead Microsoft needs to spend in the order of half a billion US$ each year (!) to keep it operational. Obviously this investment contributes to inflated profits elsewhere.

After more than a decade of having milked Windows for all it was worth, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Windows revenues won’t last forever. The answer is both simple and complex: Microsoft needs to find a new way of ensuring revenues in future years. Since Microsoft Windows and server products are an excellent means of tying the user community to proprietary protocols and services, it stands to reason to use it to leverage the user community into a new dependency. Enter Microsoft’s new Internet strategy.

The idea is simple. Start partnerships with large information and service providers on the Internet, and plan to hurt competing information providers (such as Google) as much as possible if they won’t co-operate. Then set up a bunch of web services, and bundle clients that use those web services with Windows, so that the user will get it “for free”. Gradually discontinue PC-based support for these services in software. Start with trivial things like software activation and registration, user authentication and software maintenance, and then move on to things like payment services, address books and appointment schedulers, and eventually to full-fledged web-based applications. Initially offer the new services for free or for a low entry fee, and when user dependency is at a sufficiently high level, start charging serious subscription fees. And there you are.

This future has already begun. The first implementations of this new strategy are already visible in Windows XP, and even more so in Vista.

Control every keystroke

Microsoft already controls the kind of software we buy and use. The next step into the future is to seize control of the work that we do and the way that we do it.

A major component of Microsoft’s long-term future plans revolves around Application Service Providing (ASP). The idea is to offer the applications that we now use as an internet-based service. Microsoft or its partners will host our Office applications for us, and we’ll access them using only a (thin) client system. Microsoft promises huge reductions in TCO, mainly because the installation, management and maintenance of server and applications will be outsourced with this concept.

While ASP is of course touted as being innovative, basically it’s a step back to the decades-old mainframe-with- terminals approach. In fact, all you need to become an ASP today is a Unix server, a bunch of applications and some graphic terminals. Granted, the X protocol is ugly and unsuited for anything but LAN’s, but the implementation of a more elegant and efficient client/server protocol layer (e.g. ICA or something better) is relatively trivial. Still, notwithstanding the fact that it’s essentially retro-technology, at first sight ASP might not seem such a bad idea. After all, we won’t have to bother with local software maintenance, and we’ll only be charged for the actual use of services and not for software licenses. This should simplify things no end, right?

Well… Think about it. The whole idea is that Microsoft will take the application software that we now run locally, and host it for us on their own Windows-based servers. First of all this raises questions about reliability: will Microsoft’s technology be up to a job that is mission-critical to large parts of the planet? With incidents of some 30 million users having problems with the MSN Messenger instant messaging service, caused by a malfunctioning disk controller on a buddy list database server that took Microsoft over a week to fix, the prospects aren’t all that good.

Secondly, Microsoft will take the application software that we now buy, and rent it out to us on a subscription or per- use basis. Yes, we’ll save money on one-time licenses and on local administration. How very decent of Microsoft - after they inflated the costs of licensing and ownership themselves. But will we actually save money in the long run? We’ll have to buy and run local client software from Microsoft. You can say what you want about Microsoft products, but Lean & Mean is not the way to describe any of them. They’ll need serious hardware, and bugs and implementation problems are common. On top of that, ASP will only shift the workload (and cost center) from local server and application administration to Internetworking and network administration, simply replacing one problem with another.

But the most worrisome aspect of a shift from Microsoft as a software vendor to Microsoft as an Application Service Provider is that it means our complete and utter day-to-day dependence on Microsoft for earning our daily wages. We’ll be forced to keep paying whatever subscription fees Microsoft chooses to charge us. Even better, Microsoft will also be able to control and monitor our daily work. Microsoft will control whether or not our applications will run, Microsoft will control which services and software products will be available to us, and Microsoft will know about it each and every time we use an application (i.e. request a service from Microsoft). If Microsoft wants to monitor each and every keystroke in said applications or even look into our own corporate data, they’d have no problem doing so. And If Microsoft isn’t interested in our corporate data, I’m sure someone will be. And that someone will be very happy with the appalling lack of security in any Microsoft product so far.

ASP and User lock-in

If ASP ever takes off, we’ll of course be forced to buy the client software from Microsoft (most likely bundled with an advanced PC) since adherence to open standards is something not even the most naive optimist has reason to expect. Microsoft’s application service is going to be a closed system. Microsoft will control it, and therefore will control the operational costs. Instead of having to pay an admittedly steep, but one-time, license fee we’ll now regularly pay a subscription fee, to be set by Microsoft. After all, Microsoft’s office application division is facing a revenue problem, as more and more users refuse to buy yet another version of MS Office for the sake of a few trivial “improvements”. And we’ll keep paying, because once we’ve switched from locally administered software to the ASP model, we’ll be committed to it. Trust me: a back-out from a shift to Microsoft’s new scheme will be costly.

But we’ll have little choice: the ASP platform will be gradually incorporated in all new versions of major Microsoft products. Each time we’re forced to buy another upgrade in order to maintain compatibility with the rest of the world, a piece of the new framework comes with it, and eventually the whole scheme will be forced upon us. Microsoft has announced that the extensions to implement this new framework in existing OS products will be free. Right.

Where have we heard this before? Microsoft has given away products for free in the past: web browsers and media players come to mind. Each and every time they gave away free software their ultimate purpose was to kill off a competing product that might have offered a viable alternative to the user. And now the ASP framework extensions will be free? Sure… Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

Forced updates and Trojan Horses

Financial ties aren’t the only kind of control that Microsoft will have under the new ASP scheme. Currently we may choose to purchase software for a one-time license fee and decide not to upgrade it. We may choose not to embrace dubious concepts or empty hypes. We may choose to wait, or to skip certain products or versions entirely. Under the ASP concept, Microsoft won’t allow us the freedom to do that. Microsoft controls our software, period.

Take the auto-update features in the client software, for example. Our client software will automatically be updated whenever Microsoft wants it to, installing new drivers, patches-du-jour and additions, and in the process of course uninstalling everything that has to go. Apart from doing away with most of the distribution channel and thereby inflating Microsoft’s revenues as an added bonus, auto-update has enormous possibilities:

  • Microsoft will control which drivers are present on our client computers. Soon we’ll see ‘strategic partnerships’ emerge between Microsoft and peripheral manufacturers, and if we want to connect a printer from a brand that competes with one of Microsoft’s favored partners we’re stuck.
  • Microsoft controls document compatibility and portability. As part of an update, the software may helpfully convert your existing documents and files to the new format. Today you may be able to export data to Oracle, tomorrow you might be limited to MS SQL.
  • Exclusive control over the driver and application software will make it that much easier to appropriate open standards.
  • Applications that worked well in 512 megabytes of RAM yesterday suddenly need twice that much memory tomorrow.
  • In order for auto-update to work, Microsoft will need serious access to all the files on your harddisk. Of course they’ll promise us that that access will be limited to the files that make up the operating system… just like all the other spyware manufacturers do.

All of this will be completely automatic. We won’t have to worry about it… meaning that we won’t have any control over it. Essentially, the auto-update feature is a trojan horse. We won’t even have to wait until ASP really takes off. In Windows 2000, XP and Vista the first incarnations of the auto-update scheme are already hard at work. The WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) feature is a good example. Microsoft’s initiative to prevent their products being pirated through the WGA feature can of course hardly be criticized. What is worrying, however, is that they slipped in WGA through Windows auto-update disguised as a critical security update that ended up breaking some quite legitimate OEM installations of Windows. Microsoft has also on at least one occasion quietly installed updates on the PCs of XP users even if the latter had set their XP not to download and install any updates. This stealth update (forced and without notification) then turned out to break about 80 patches and a lot of other things. This is a prime example of a “service” that is solely designed to benefit Microsoft and not the user community.

Even more interesting is Microsoft’s announcement that in the future this service is designed to provide not only automatic updates to Windows, but also to take care of virus and spyware protection, network security and other essentials. Of course this service merely lets the user pay Microsoft to clean up their own rubbish, while there is no reason to expect it to be any more reliable and secure than is normal practice for Microsoft. Even more importantly, this all-in-one service is primarily a vessel for software distribution and control, disguised as a maintenance process. The software it distributes, through an integrated Windows service, directly competes with all anti-virus and anti-manufacturers in the market.

Update your software, downgrade your rights

A major advantage of auto-updating (at least from Microsoft’s standpoint) is that it gives them tremendous control over the users’ rights and ability to use their software.

In June 2002 Microsoft injected a critical security patch for Windows Media Player into the auto-update channels. The patch itself was harmless enough (though of course it destroyed RealPlayer’s ability to play audio CD’s) but during the automatic installation process the user was quietly required to agree to a brand new clause in the software End User License Agreement.

This new clause in the EULA gives Microsoft the right to “provide security related updates to the OS Components that will be automatically downloaded onto your computer [and] may disable your ability to copy and/or play Secure Content and use other software on your computer.” In other words, by installing the patch (which is critical to the security of your system) you have agreed to give Microsoft deed and title to your personal property, to disable functions on your computer whenever they feel like it, and to leave them immune from legal repercussions if they damage your system, livelihood or worse.

Whenever this happens, Microsoft promises to make a “reasonable effort” to post notices somewhere on a website. It’s clear from their wording that MS has absolutely no intention of bringing this behavior to our attention. Instead, Microsoft just assumes the right to surreptitiously install code of their choosing on your computer. You will not be warned; you will not be offered an opportunity to examine the download or refuse it. MS will simply connect remotely and install or disable whatever they will, or do so secretly when your computer contacts any of their servers. Microsoft will have administrator privileges on your personal computer. What they feed you may be infected with viruses; it may break your applications, corrupt data files, destroy weeks or months or even years of work, but you’ll have no recourse if it does. Their responsibility ends with “Sorry”.

As if to illustrate that this was more than incidental, a few weeks later Microsoft released Service Pack 3 for Windows 2000 with a similar clause in the EULA. This essentially gave Microsoft the right to go into your systems, gather whatever information they think they need, including an inventory of what software you’re running, and “disclose this information to others, but not in a form that personally identifies you”. Similar things are going on with recent updates of Internet Explorer, during the installation of which you grant Microsoft permission to collect information about OS version numbers and product identification numbers, IE version number, version numbers of other software, and Plug-and-Play ID numbers of hardware devices.

It’s interesting to note that the Computer Incident Advisory Capability office (CIAC) has issued an official warning against Windows XP and Office XP. (CIAC bulletin M-005c.) CIAC officials were displeased with the error reporting feature in these products. After a crash, Windows and Office XP send information (i.e. memory dumps) to Microsoft so that developers may do a ‘post-mortem’ on the data to see what went wrong. These memory snapshots are likely to contain (possibly sensitive) user data, e.g. the document or spreadsheet that the user was working on at the time. Microsoft’s promise that any “accidentally” received sensitive data would not be used in any way did not impress the CIAC.

Windows 1984

All these changes are to a great extent exercises in fixing flaws in a product you have already bought. But the hidden control features that they come with are an outrageous imposition for Microsoft to seize more rights for itself as a condition of those fixes being applied. If you want to keep your systems working properly, you are forced to give Microsoft control over your personal and corporate information. Scary? Try ‘Orwellian’…

But wait - it gets better. Shortly after announcing their planned future shift to Internet-based application services, Microsoft launched a new scheme: Microsoft Passport. This was presented as a simpler authentication system that would effectively enable us to log in to the whole planet with one single password. Personal information, passwords, a virtual identity, credit card information and many other types of data would be bundled in one system (codename Hailstorm). The Passport “Wallet” system was the first step in this plan, and while it was operational it allowed us to log on to all affiliated websites (including E-commerce sites) with one and the same password. Or at least, that was the idea.

Apart from the huge security weakness that this single-point authentication implied, the terms of use left little to the imagination: you had the right to use the service, period. Microsoft reserved all other rights, including the right to use the information you provided as they saw fit, the right to change conditions without notice, and the right “to exploit any proprietary rights” that you might hold. It was interesting to note that they used the word “feedback” for all user- supplied information (which included each and every mouseclick). This legally gave them the right to monitor and track everything you did on the web. In their Passport privacy statement they stated a commitment (in less than legally airtight terms) to provide secure user interfaces and transmissions for your data, but little more. In fact, they explicitly stated that they would “disclose Personal Information if required to do so by law or in the good-faith belief that such action is necessary…” In return, they continued to state that “If Microsoft becomes aware of ongoing site-specific consumer concerns or problems with Passport participating sites, we will take these issues seriously…” Well, that should protect our privacy and legal rights.

Microsoft and your wallet

Given Microsoft’s penchant for apallingly bad security standards, it was only a matter of time before the Passport Wallet system would be cracked and spill its (or rather, your) secrets. And indeed it didn’t take long. Shortly after Passport became operational, credit card information became available for unauthorized access. Microsoft product manager spokesman Adam Sohn said there was “no evidence” that data security was compromised, but the fact that Microsoft took the entire Passport Wallet service offline until the largest security holes had been patched up is a fair indication that things just might have been a little bit more serious. Sohn also stated that Windows XP users were not affected because of XP’s “improved security”. What he in fact meant was that cross-site scripting is a little harder to do with XP, and his statement illustrates Microsoft’s naive ideas about security models rather well.

Meanwhile Microsoft continued to push Passport. Features in Windows XP nagged mercilessly, offering all sorts of goodies to get you to divulge your name, address, age, phone number, and the like, as an incentive. Then, less than a month after the security breach, Hotmail users were required to sign up for Passport, and in so doing were added to the Passport database. Microsoft Messenger suddenly came with compulsory Passport subscription too.

Then all users who had signed up for Hotmail (or anything else linked to Passport) before December 2001 got a big surprise. Suddenly Microsoft quietly changed the rules, and unilaterally decided to pass along personal information to other companies that used Passport on their Web sites. This personal information included the user’s email address, birthday, country and zip code, gender and occupation. They did this by the simple expedient of adding check boxes to the users’ personal options to indicate whether or not data may be shared, and checking those boxes by default. Microsoft also quietly changed their policy about sharing your personal Passport information, essentially abandoning most privacy-related clauses in their earlier policy, and thereby stripping their Passport customers of all rights to privacy.

God’s own address book

This was only the beginning. ZDnet’s David Coursey, a self-admitted “non-MS hater”, wrote:

[Passport] will start simply and helpfully as online services learn to interact with your desktop computer. It will become easier to log on: A single password will give you access to many more services, and you will only enter it once. You’ll ask to be notified of events that are important to you - and the notification will just appear on your desktop, or perhaps on a cell phone or pager. The system will know where you are and how to reach you.

It will link things together that have never been linked before and it will seem like magic. Or maybe not. Most of what [Passport] wants to do can already be done, but not as flexibly and certainly not on an anything-to-anything basis across multiple vendors or systems.

Think of it as God’s address book. To accomplish this ultimate linkage, Microsoft will create, perhaps with partners, a giant database to collect, manage, and dispense information from what amounts to God’s address book: Everything you might want to know about everyone will be in there.

Which is to say Microsoft wants to have all your personal information, like calendars, contact lists, E-mail inbox, credit card information, banking data, and so forth, in this giant database, so that applications can use the information to do your bidding. You won’t reveal it all at once, of course, but as you ask it to do more for you, more will be revealed.

Imagine: God’s own database… with your private E-mail address, your private cellphone number, your bank account and credit card numbers, your financial administration, who your doctor is, what prescription medication he gave you… This should be good! A database that knows where you live and what you recently purchased, or whether or not you have received treatment for any venereal diseases. A database that could cause possible rejections from your health insurance company because of genetic defects in your family that you yourself might not even know about. A database that can tell telemarketeers where and how to reach you and where to send their unsolicited E-mail. A database that could get you fired without even knowing why. A database that provides a wealth of useful details on you including your social security number, age, occupation, credit record, income… You name it, it’s in there, maintained by Microsoft and “protected” from the eyes of the ungodly by the ridiculous kind of security schemes that Microsoft has become rightly notorious for. Not to mention the US government’s demand for wide open backdoor access into such a database.

Forget Orwell, forget 1984 - this is much better!

Eventually the entire Hailstorm project was put on hold. This was not only in response to widespread criticism concerning security and the ownership of privacy-sensitive data. The main reason for the holdup (and fortunately the eventual demise) of the concept was that Microsoft didn’t manage to inspire enough trust in potential implementation partners. The intended adopters of Hailstorm feared that control over the accumulated data would enable Microsoft to interpose themselves between the partners and their customers. Initial negotiations with five interested companies had already taken place, but even those potential early adopters couldn’t bring themselves to trust Microsoft enough to do business with them on such a scale.

By the end of 2004 Microsoft was forced to discontinue Passport. In spite of Microsoft’s best marketing efforts and greatest sales pitches, nobody trusted them enough to participate in, or even pay lip service to, the Passport initiative. Given the fact that there are generally partners to be found for just about any venture with Microsoft, and the fact that at least some decision makers would have based their decision on Microsoft’s track record rather than on sentiment, this should tell us a thing or two about how bad the state of affairs actually is.

Microsoft spyware

Another indication of where Microsoft is going with regard to privacy breaches is the spyware embedded in Windows Media Player (WMP). Computer Bytes’ Richard M. Smith explains:

“Each time a new DVD movie is played on a computer, the WMP software contacts a Microsoft Web server to get title and chapter information for the DVD. When this contact is made, the Microsoft Web server is given an electronic fingerprint which identifies the DVD movie being watched and a cookie which uniquely identifies a particular WMP player. With these two pieces of information Microsoft can track what DVD movies are being watched on a particular computer.”

This nonsense started with Media Player 8, but the Microsoft privacy policy that came with it did not disclose any of this. Media Player 9 came with even bigger backdoor options for Microsoft. Internet Explorer 7 boasts a “security feature” that contacts a Microsoft server whenever you access a website. The advertised purpose of this feature is to protect you from ending up on fraudulent websites. However it has the additional benefit of informing Microsoft exactly what information on the Internet you are trying to access, which is the exact definition of spyware. The Windows XP search assistant also contacts Microsoft servers on a regular basis for no sufficiently explained reason.

But not only separate applications have been deliberately compromised. Windows XP Home Edition regularly connects to a Microsoft server as well. There are several processes running on all versions of Windows XP and Vista that generate unexplained network traffic to IP addresses owned by Microsoft. The US government has a hand in it, too: during an investigation of Windows by Cryptonym Corporation, Chief Scientist Andrew Fernandes discovered a backdoor for the National Security Agency (NSA) in every flavor of Windows, from 95 to XP, no matter what country you’re in. There is no reason to assume that this backdoor has been closed in Windows Vista. It is part of the ‘CryptoAPI’ code, the foundation of cryptographic security in Windows. Apart from the question of whether or not the US government should have backdoors into the cryptography on all Windows computers in other countries, this means that any backdoor (not to mention other flaws) in the CryptoAPI module will open up all of Windows to electronic intrusion.

Next Generation Control Secure Computing

Where is all this going? Well… Microsoft has taken to putting some very odd language in some of their updates: things like requiring that you agree not to benchmark their software, or publish the results if you do. This should give us pause. And of course there’s also the ridiculous clause in the Office XP EULA that prohibits you from running it on anything but Windows (without actually mentioning the words “Linux” or “OSX”). Then, too, XP and Vista require “activation,” which gives Microsoft some information about what you’re running, and is the first step toward letting them into your system as a “trusted” associate. Which itself wouldn’t be a big problem if weren’t for the fact that activation is tied to the identity of several hardware components in the computer, and for Palladium chips and similar hardware being put onto motherboards. In fact, many hardware manufacturers (including major ones) have been quietly putting Palladium chips into their motherboards for years.

The Palladium chip runs a system that, when you boot up, decides what software is trusted and legitimate and thus allowed to run, and what is forbidden. After its introduction, Palladium has been renamed into ‘Next Generation Secure Computing Base’. Well, that should help. NGSCB, having attempted to shed the stains of Palladium’s negative publicity, was promised to be released as an integral part of Windows Vista. That didn’t happen, and analysts had already warned not to expect any adequate security and privacy improvements before 2008. So far they have been proven correct.

Whatever part of NGSCB is going to materialize within the next few years is more likely to focus on digital rights management and extending control over the user’s desktop than on security. The first thing Palladium (excuse me, NGSCB) will do is to enable software manufacturers to decide when their products will run and when not. It will allow them to bind software products to a single PC, which means that you’ll have to get their permission to replace your hardware. It will allow them to make their software run only for a certain time, which will enable them to enforce regular payments for “subscription renewal”. It will enable them to limit or prevent the making of backups. It will enable them to track versions of products on your system, link your Internet access to your hardware identity and later to your own (their infamous and ill-fated Passport system comes to mind) and keep track of what data you download, use and distribute. Possibly the same can be done to hardware in the not-so-distant future. After all there is already a “feature” in Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console, that remotely and permanently disables it whenever Microsoft’s servers detect it has been tampered with.

In short: control, control and more control. Apparently Microsoft’s definition of ‘secure’ has more to do with securing their own interests and extending their control over the user than with actual system security. Their current plans only extend that control further and further, under the guise of enhancing security, protecting third party copyrights and working for the common good.

It’s food for thought.

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