The Evil Empire
by Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Columbia Journal
, July 2004
Most Canadians now use computers,
whether at home (where over half of all Canadian homes now have
computers), at work, or at school. And the vast majority of those
computers use Microsoft productivity software such as Microsoft Office
running on top of Microsoft operating systems—generally some version or
other of Microsoft Windows.
It’s easy to take Microsoft Windows
and Office for granted. They’re just the computing environment in which
we work and play. But like a polluted physical environment, the
Microsoft computing environment has its share of problems.
Take security. Microsoft’s products
are the number one target of hackers and virus-writers. Some of that’s
because they have the overwhelming majority of users, making them the
most tempting target. But the security problems are not just a symptom
of Microsoft’s commercial success. Microsoft’s best-known products have
been designed, from the ground up, in ways that make them difficult to
run securely, and easy for hackers to, well, hack.
Microsoft Office, for instance,
includes a full-fledged programming language, Visual Basic for
Applications. This was included to make it easy for a tiny minority of
corporate users to develop sophisticated forms and macros using
functions from the office suite’s various modules. (When was the last
time you wrote a macro? Whatever that is!) But this same power allows
hackers to write e-mail viruses that take over Outlook’s address book,
spreading the virus to everyone you’ve got stored there. No surprise
that most current viruses prey on users of Outlook (included with
Microsoft Office) or Outlook Express (included with Microsoft Windows).
The biggest competition for
Microsoft newest versions, currently Windows XP and Office XP are older
versions of Windows and Office; neither business nor home users are
upgrading to Microsoft’s latest in the numbers that the company wants.
The result—Microsoft is increasingly putting the pressure on its
customers in a variety of ways:
Windows XP and Office XP use ‘product-activation’, making it more
difficult to use a single copy on multiple computers.
licensing schemes aimed at big corporate accounts aim to make it more
expensive for customers who do not upgrade in lockstep with Microsoft’s
release schedule, whether the customers feel the need to upgrade or not.
has dropped support for Windows 95, even though that older version is
still used by millions of users. New Microsoft products, from Office XP
to Internet Explorer 6 refuse to install on computers running Windows
95. While the company recently pushed back the date it will drop
for Windows 98, the upcoming Office 2003 release reportedly will
require that users run either Windows 2000 or XP.
company is the major force behind groups such as the Canadian Alliance
Against Software Theft (CAAST) and its US
equivalent, the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which have bombarded
randomly-selected small businesses, schools, and other organizations
with letters threatening audits to ensure that there are licenses on
file for every piece of software running on every computer.
500-pound gorilla of the technology industry, even companies that don’t
directly compete with Microsoft end up fearful. Computer manufacturers
are reliant on being able to get cheap licenses for the company’s
products, and (as was pointed out in testimony at recent anti-trust
hearings in the US)
have been limited in what they can do with their products. Software
companies worry whether Microsoft will choose to enter their little
corner of the business. Just this week (as I write this), Microsoft
purchased a little-known Romanian software company marketing anti-virus
software, affecting the value of shares of companies like Symantec,
makers of Norton AntiVirus.
for large numbers of users, Microsoft has become synonymous with
personal computers, for many other users, it’s the Evil Empire.