PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Lest we forget

July 2002 

Just in case you have done what Microsoft wants you to do, and forget the whole rambling shambles of the court case brought as a result of Microsoft’s effort to purloin the web browsing standards and bind them so tightly into Windows that the world just gives up and lets Microsoft get away with it again, I’ll remind you that it’s still far from over.

Bill Gates has been giving evidence in court for the first time since 1998. Strange though it may seem, he only appeared to give evidence at the end of April, doing his best to scare American politicians by conjuring up the Armageddon that would follow for the whole US world domination of the IT business, if Microsoft was required to behave itself and stopping riding roughshod over the entire PC industry as it keeps its monopolies in tact. Bill even suggested that the remedies sought against Microsoft for its abuse of position would cause loss of revenue and employees, and send his company's multibillion-dollar research and development engine "into a 10-year period of hibernation."

Well, as was once stated in another famous court case in the UK, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”  On the lighter side, scanning reports of the case I came across this priceless piece of Americana on the Computerworld web site:

The threat to pull Windows "was a little bit on the outrageous side," said Kevin Shauvin, IS director at Huntwood Industries Inc., a Spokane, Wash.-based cabinet maker. But he credited Microsoft with bringing some standardization to IT. The court has to ensure that this standardization "is not disturbed," Shauvin said.

My mistake is obviously I should call the bloke that maintains the PCs at the local dog’s home for a comment on the burning issues of IT intrigue. Those of us working in the industry have obviously all lost the power of objective comment, and it seems that Gates has indeed won the hearts and minds of the mass of end users. This is dangerously the same argument that won Mussolini the hearts and minds of the Italian people when he made the trains run on time; and the people of Germany who cheered when Hitler sorted out the perceived problems of the Depression.  This case has always been about means and ends, when reduced to the specific details, it frequently becomes obtuse and irrelevant – which suits Microsoft just fine.

We all know that Microsoft has standardised much about the PC desktop to the benefit of the users and industry; but what is less obvious to the cabinet makers and dog’s home is the extent to which Microsoft has steamrolled competition that could have produced more reliable, robust software solutions that would enable the return of competition to all those markets that Microsoft now monopolises.

Let’s remind ourselves that despite the common language, Americans regard many things as a natural part of commercial life that we Brits would shrink away from in horror. 

This is exemplified in adware, like the latest horror from Brilliant Digital Entertainment, which is bundled with the Kazaa file-swapping program. The 2,644-word "terms of service" contract suggests that Brilliant might tap the "unused computing power and storage space" on victims PCs for its Altnet. Always read the small print.

Altnet is giving you the opportunity to opt in to making certain parts of your computing power, disk space and bandwidth available to Altnet business partners.

In my jaundiced view, adware, spyware and sneakware like Grokster and iMesh are barely legal Trojan viruses that arrive on PCs through the unwillingness of users to read the lengthy and obtuse “agree and sign here” messages during installation.  But Windows is a virus that you still have to pay for, and still it installs a browser that tries to sell you more Microsoft “stuff” from the MSN homepage.

This is all about the evolution of media as it gropes its way from commercial TV to a whole raft of more subtle forms of exploiting its basic principle, which is to first attract eyeballs, and then sell them to advertisers. The nature of the relationship between PC and user is that the PC can quickly accumulate log files that create an accurate profile of the user’s interests.

TV advertising can only be very approximately targeted through the process of scheduling – this means using both the times of day and the nature of the programme. For example, if you want to advertise soap powder, then hit the housewife audience from 9am to 11am and try and catch her thoughts before she pops down to Tesco. If you want to flog appalling toys to appalling kids, then you do so on Saturday morning and kids cartoons. But its all a very blunt instrument compared to the rapier precision of the PC.

This process is the natural evolution of the cookie menace; from a relatively small sample of web sites, it’s possible to draw up a remarkably accurate idea of the users’ tastes and proclivities. 

When I play with XP, I can see the whole awful panoply of the American way of doing business starting to ooze from the OS itself. The registration process, those on-line reminders are obvious evidence that like or not, Bill has my number. Sure there are probably numerous things I should have read in more detail when I was installing it, but because the people of the US are so completely submerged by media that sells stuff, the whole planet is in danger of becoming some sort of Truman Show, where we all exist to provide unwitting product placement opportunities.

It’s way past time to call a halt to all forms of adware and the surreptitious invasion of personal computers. And as the MS case proves, unless we kick up a big fuss as soon as possible, the invasion will be over before we complain.