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    Rumours and silly myths notwithstanding, Microsoft is indeed hungry for more influence

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #310  October 3, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    In the late '60s, a guy named A. J. Weberman got his 15 minutes of fame by going through Bob Dylan's trash, and using what he found as evidence to support theories about his former idol. If Weberman were active today, Microsoft and Bill Gates would be a likely target for him.

    Microsoft, because of its great influence over today's computer market, has found itself the subject of many myths and rumours. Windows 95, for example, offers users the option of registering on-line rather than mailing a card back to Microsoft. This is a growing practice among software companies, which have found that users are more likely to press a button that dials a 1-800 number than to mail back a postcard.

    The first time I ran into this practice was a couple of years ago while installing Delrina's WinFax. It was no big deal, but when Microsoft does the same thing, it becomes the basis for rumours of an evil scheme to find out what's on your hard drive, to track down pirated copies of Microsoft programs or to read your financial records. (One of the unsung changes wrought by the Internet is that rumours can spread faster than ever, and are harder to discredit. Reading something on the Internet seems--to some people--to add credibility.)

    This particular rumour was helped along when a columnist in U.S.-based Information Week magazine published it, going so far as to call Windows 95's Online Registration Wizard "a virus." The next week, the editors issued an apology for a poor choice of words, but inevitably the retraction gathered much less attention than the original charges. Despite denials by Microsoft, and hard data like publication of what is actually sent by the Registration Wizard (it's not very exciting), variations of this rumour keep circulating through Internet and other e-mail circles.

    The latest cycle seems to have taken in the Australian navy, which is waiting to determine whether online registration is a security hazard. In the meantime, it has banned Windows 95 from its computers. (Presumably, the Australian army and air force are prepared to risk national security, but at least the fleet will be safe.)

    This rumour--like the one that depicts Procter and Gamble as a tool of Satan--may never entirely die out, since Microsoft is a perfect target for these sorts of things. Its supposed power over the entire computer industry, and Bill Gates' on-again, off-again listing as the richest person in America/the world, plus tales of sometimes-ruthless business practices, ensure an audience for any tale, however far-fetched.

    The reality, of course, is somewhat different. While Microsoft is now number one in sales of personal-computing software, this wasn't always the case. Even though its MS-DOS operating system has run on nearly all non-Apple personal computers since the debut of the IBM PC in 1981, its applications were perennial also-rans throughout the 1980s to products like WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3. For most of that decade, Lotus took in more in sales than Microsoft. Microsoft Windows, which debuted in 1985 (only a year behind the Macintosh, but much more awkward), took another five years and three versions to become a serious operating environment.

    And while personal computers seem to get all the attention, they aren't the whole picture. Windows may dominate the personal desktop market, overshadowing IBM's Warp, but IBM's sales remain many times those of Microsoft.

    And even though Microsoft Office has become the dominant seller among desktop business applications, Microsoft has not been able to shake networking giant Novell from its pre-eminence in that market. Unix remains the dominant factor in the workstation market, and in the emerging client-server market.

    Microsoft's products have rarely been inspired: instead, they owe their success more to persistence--to adopting the best ideas of their competitors, and continuing to slowly improve on their original designs. But in order to maintain its growth rates, Microsoft needs to expand beyond its current dominance of the desktop to become a serious factor in areas where it has little or no history and experience--where people use terms like "mission critical" to describe applications which had better not crash, or where huge amounts of money are at risk.

    And this time, the paranoiacs are right: Microsoft does want control over these areas, too. Its corporate plans range from your TV set at home to your bank to your office's network--to any place where digital data might be found.

    Next week: Microsoft's plans for your office's future.

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