Microsoft’s Future of Uncertainty and Doubt

The idea that Bill Gates has appeared like a knight in shining armor to lead all customers out of a mire of technological chaos neatly ignores the fact that it was he who, by peddling second-rate technology, led them into it in the first place.

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote these words about Windows 95. More than a decade later, Gates appears again with Vista, a new version of Windows that will lead us out of the viral wilderness, and Office 12, which sports a new and improved user interface. This time, people are aware of Microsoft’s history of locking customers in with new features at the expense of security, proposing pseudo-open standards, and spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about its competitors.

Microsoft issues security updates that are like putting fingers into the holes of a leaking dike. The updates don’t reach enough people fast enough to stem the flow of malware. Older, unpatched systems are left vulnerable to new strains and clever hackers. To counter this, Microsoft is pushing Vista as the ultimate upgrade to fix all upgrades. Gates even spun the lawlessness of the Internet into a positive view of Microsoft when he wrote, in a viewpoint column in BusinessWeek, that “the threats of cybercrime, viruses and malware have sparked a new wave of innovation [italics added] that’s helping to make the computing ecosystem more secure.”

The Mafia couldn’t have thought up a better protection racket than the platform Microsoft has provided: an architecture loaded with loopholes that criminals and crime-stoppers can both exploit for profit. The question is, can you trust Microsoft enough to buy a security product from the company as well as an operating system that needs to be protected? What scares Bill Gates the most is a backlash that would have competitors adding security and new features to Windows XP that would either render Vista irrelevant or at least postpone the need to upgrade.

The resistance to upgrading has also infected Office customers. The uprisings in Massachusetts and the European Union to standardize on OpenDocument are just the beginning of a backlash against Office 12, which will not support the format. With a bit of spin control, Microsoft has proposed its own “open” standards, but the formats submitted are not open — they maintain the bind that ties business and government customers to Office.

Resistance is Not Futile

I don’t suffer delusions that people will quickly abandon Microsoft Windows. Yet it is happening — one desktop, one laptop, one notebook at a time. Over a million Windows users purchased a Mac in the first three quarters of 2005. Converts to the Mac tend to buy Apple’s higher-end systems, and their transitions are fueled by the epidemic of viruses and malware on the Windows platform. Who can blame them? If your primary purpose in using a computer is to browse the web, collect and send email, and use typical productivity software (such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations), you are much better off with a Mac.

Like it or not, for some the decision to move away from Windows is political — a reaction to Microsoft’s power and arrogance. But for many, the decision is a reaction to the epidemic of viruses and malware that target Microsoft software. The Mac is safer for many reasons, but an important one is diversity. It is simply not healthy for the industry to have everyone using the same software.

There is so much pent-up demand for an alternative — such as a Google PC that would run Linux — that the press and analysts are falling for every rumor that comes along, as shown in Google, Sun, and a New PC: Anatomy of a Rumor by Wade Roush in Technology Review:

For many consumers, the prospect of a new set of operating systems and application software that isn’t as risky and unreliable as Microsoft’s products, as expensive and eclectic as Apple’s, or as complicated and geeky as those written by the Linux community holds a strong attraction… Nonetheless, a look at the evolution of the latest series of speculations about new software or hardware from Google and Sun suggests that they boil down to little more than wishful thinking — amplified by the Internet’s tireless gossip machine.

Moving away from Office is a subtler but more deadly blow to Microsoft in the long run, because it takes away one of the sources of the Microsoft “addiction” — adherence to Office formats that lock in customers. Windows users of Office will migrate to because it’s free and because it looks and acts like today’s version of Office. Far from dampening enthusiasm for alternatives, Office 12 may actually fan the flames of dissent.

Managing diversity is the key to a safer computing environment. Open standards make diverse applications possible and guarantee that you will be able to open the documents of the future with the applications you use today.

Diversity is also the key reason why open source software is so successful. Previously considered too complex and risky for enterprise applications, open source software has matured to the point of becoming a real alternative to Microsoft. Dana Blankenhorn, in his Open Source blog entry The open source story of the year, writes about the success of companies like JBoss and Covalent in delivering compelling open source business models to the enterprise space:

This is what made open source a real alternative for large enterprises. Their support-based business models for enterprise-scale applications gave large customers a comfort level they needed to support, not only JBoss and Apache, but other open source projects as well. The growth of open source among large enterprises was a big deal [in 2005], and it’s going to be a bigger deal in the future.


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