Business-like, isn't he?



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    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:

    n     Both Windows XP and Office XP use ‘product-activation’, making it more difficult to use a single copy on multiple computers.

    n     New 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.

    n     Microsoft 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 support for Windows 98, the upcoming Office 2003 release reportedly will require that users run either Windows 2000 or XP.

    n     The 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.

    As the 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.

    While for large numbers of users, Microsoft has become synonymous with personal computers, for many other users, it’s the Evil Empire.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan