Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal

    Getting the facts according to Microsoft

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Columbia Journal May 2004

    There has been a torrent of bad news for the Redmond Washington-based software giant.

    In just the last few weeks of March, for instance, we saw a front-page headline in the Vancouver Sun about three new variants of the so-called Bagel virus spread by email, which can infect Windows systems (and only Windows systems) even without the user needing to open an attachment. (To be fair, Microsoft had released a patch to close this vulnerability several months ago—one more reason for Windows users to keep their patches up-to-date. As well, turn off the preview-pane in your email software so that you can delete obvious virus and spam messages, sight-unseen).

    Microsoft- It's the gamesAnd the European Union imposed a fine of a half a billion or so on Microsoft, alleging that the company’s bundling of its Windows Media Player with Windows made it difficult for other companies such as Real Networks (makers of Real Player) to compete. Microsoft intends to appeal the decision.

    In the middle of all this, I was invited to meet with Alec Taylor, Microsoft Canada’s Senior Manager for Platform Strategy to “get the facts” about Linux and the open source software movement. Taylor was touring Western Canada, meeting with reporters and spreading the gospel according to Microsoft.

    Articulate and low-key, Taylor suggested that if customers (typically meaning the chief technology officers of large corporations or government departments—not individual users like you or me) step back from the sometimes passionate debate about computer platforms, they will see that Microsoft’s Windows (server and desktop versions) and Office product lines are the most reliable, secure and cost-effective solutions. He suggested that Microsoft has made a strong commitment to deal with security issues and to produce software codes and tools for other companies to use to produce future Windows-based software that is more secure from the ground up.

    There is some validity to his arguments. Certainly, because Microsoft Windows and Office are on the vast majority of home and business computers, users and network administrators, and computer technicians are more familiar with those platforms. Users need less training than if an organization decides to move to something new and different. And initial software purchase price forms only a small percentage of the total cost of operation over time. As a result, free software (like Linux or OpenOffice) may prove to be more expensive in the long run.

    On the other hand, it isn’t good enough to say, as Taylor repeated, that all computer platforms have security issues. Microsoft products have more than their share of problems and not just because they’re used by more people and so more often targeted by the bad guys. Microsoft products are also targeted because Microsoft’s design decisions made them easy targets. And while Microsoft is working hard to patch holes and make future products more secure, millions of users of its older versions are left in the lurch.

    (And depending how you juggle the figures, the extra time and effort required to patch Windows systems and to keep them virus-free may make them more expensive to operate than Microsoft’s figures. Supporters of different computer platforms toss around dueling studies comparing total cost of operation. A recent independent study suggested that it would be more expensive for large organizations to switch to Linux than to move to a newer Windows version, but that there could be real cost benefits for smaller organizations. And Mac fans point to studies showing lower support costs for that platform).

    Recently, computer columnist-gadfly John Dvorak compared Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s OS X, and the open source Linux. He noted that the Mac was easiest to use, Linux crashed the least, and Windows supported the most hardware, while spam affected users of all three systems. He suggested that a case for lowest total cost of ownership could be made for all three contenders. But the area where Windows shone was in the availability of games. If, despite real concerns about Microsoft and Windows, people are loath to switch, Dvorak concluded, it’s for the games.

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