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.comment: Why Windows Users Should Oppose the Settlement (and Other Notes That Defy Categorization)

The Effects of a Monopoly

  • January 9, 2002
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Yes, I'm going this week to hammer again at the proposed settlement in U.S. v. Microsoft. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is to remind you that the time is running out -- you must file comments you wish to make under the Tunney Act provisions of the case by January 26. The second is to point out something little noted: Even Windows users -- perhaps especially Windows users -- would benefit from a far stronger penalty than the puny one contemplated in the settlement as it stands.

Why address Windows users in a Linux column? Simple. From my email I learn that many readers use Linux at home, but work in Windows shops. Many of those are IT professionals who have sought unsuccessfully to insinuate Linux into at least part of the companies for which they work. I hope to arm those readers with the ordnance necessary to get their companies to take a stand, even in the form of an officially sanctioned comment or, better, in a reconsideration and comment by the CEO, COO, CTO, or whatever three-character character carries weight.

The argument I propose to employ embraces the entire political spectrum -- it's something that fits in nicely with anyone's philosophy of choice. In the vernacular, it's a "no brainer," except that "no brainers" are people who unquestioningly use whatever came on the machine, or who fall victim to the smooth talk of the Microsoft sales department. (If recently published internal Microsoft memorandums are legitimate, then my worst suspicions about the company are overly conservative -- Microsoft is truly reprehensible. I have several excellent books about reptiles here, but the Brian Valentine appears nowhere in any of them, apparently an oversight; then again, I like reptiles, but Valentine's words make my blood run cold. Send the National Geographic to sort it out.)

The argument is this: Competition breeds better products. And without competition, Microsoft products would become as bad as -- well, as bad as they have become.

Here's how it works. A company which has a monopoly has no incentive to improve; in fact, it has no reason even to maintain the quality of its products. Where else are you going to go? (As to Linux, consider the salesman's pitch, "Yeah, there's this other little thing that some guy in Sweden or somewhere did as part of a term paper, but you and I understand each other, don't we? We're both in business.")

The proposed settlement underlines the salesman's words.

Those of us who run Linux exclusively have had the amusement of watching, over the past year, as serious security attacks absolutely ripped machines and companies running Microsoft software. We saw Nimda batter itself against us, with no effect unless we were running web servers, in which case it filled up our logs. We passed around screenshots of the Microsoft update site, beset by Nimda because Microsoft did not itself apply its own patches. We were annoyed because the Web got slower.

Before that there was something called "ILoveYou" and later there were SirCam and its variants, which we deleted, saying a few words of profanity over the waste of bandwidth, and moved on. The New York Times didn't; its Web work was down while it all got sorted out.

We have heard about the ability -- feature? -- of Internet Explorer to allow pretty much anybody to run pretty much any executable they care to on machines running Microsoft software, but we've been immune -- "serves 'em right," we probably said. I sure as hell did. We now know that their plug'n'play extends beyond the local machine and welcomes anyone who wants to do harm.

The list goes on, and extends to things which haven't even happened yet.

Now, you might suppose that any company whose products were so breathtakingly vulnerable to attack might do something about it. And you might be surprised that they haven't.

You shouldn't be. With no competition, Microsoft has no incentive to ship a secure product. I mean -- "where else are you gonna go? That kid from Norway or wherever it is? Yeah, right."

If you are reading this column, you know that in one way Microsoft does have competition. So does Brian Valentine, unless he is hibernating; he certainly did when he wrote his semi-literate memos. But in another way, it doesn't: No matter what you run, you pay for Windows -- the "Microsoft tax" we all know too well. The proposed settlement actually makes this worse, which I suspect is something that none of us thought possible.

But the bottom line is this: Even if you run Windows, if you have any complaints about it, about its reliability or its vulnerability to any damn batch file somebody cares to slap together and set loose on the Internet, and if you have any brains at all, you'll oppose this settlement. Because the more vigorous and threatening the competition that Microsoft faces, the more they'll have to devote resources to development of good software instead of the thinly veiled organized crime that the Valentine marketing memos represent.

A perfect example: I recently bought a hard drive for a notebook machine. It's an IBM drive, and it is tremendously cool -- there are even Linux utilities provided which allow me to configure its power use, to run diagnostics on it, even to make it quieter. And I spent very little money on it. Why? Because IBM has competition. I could have bought competing drives from any of a half-dozen makers. IBM offered value for money, and that's a far cry from its being the only choice, in which case the price would have been higher and performance lower. And Linux utilities? Fat chance!

If you haven't filed your comments with the Department of Justice yet, get to it. The e-mail address is microsoft.atr@usdoj.gov while the fax numbers are 1-202-307-1454 and 1-202-616-9937. Again, be polite and respectful. (Does anyone doubt that Microsoft has people at work sending nasty and insulting messages from "Linux users"? I don't, not after the company's recent Valentines to its sales force.)

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