Mass Mac Migration

It’s no longer a mini-trend. Windows users are switching to the Mac. Some say it’s due to the success of the iPod; others say it’s due to malware problems with Windows.

Analysts are taking note. In the Apple Insider article Over 1 million Windows to Mac converts so far in 2005?, Kasper Jade writes:

The momentum generated by Apple’s iPod digital music players and related products continues to translate into new Macintosh sales according to one Wall Street analyst who estimates that over one million Windows users have purchased a Mac in the first three quarters of 2005.

In a research note released to clients on Monday, Needham & Co. analyst Charles Wolf said the number of Windows users purchasing a Mac appears to be far higher than the firm had previously anticipated…

According to checks with Apple Store Specialists, Wolf also said a larger than expected percentage of Windows to Mac converts appear to be purchasing Apple’s higher-end systems and that their transition is fueled by the epidemic of viruses and malware on the Windows platform.

Newly minted Mac users are popping up everywhere. In response to the above article, a reader named MacGregor describes Mac-envy in the Windows-dominated world:

I have spent the past few years in friendly banter over Wintel and IBMacs with me getting the advantage each and every time until they bring up price and games for the kids. Well last year, my PowerBook with iTunes blew away their desktop full of games even with the kids, and I could feel a shift in the wind. The Intel-ites started looking more envious and as they started using their cheapo mp3 players and using bad software with their cheapo digital cameras, they began thinking a switch was at least a metaphysical possibility if not a realistic probability.

Over at MacDailyNews, the Mac faithful responded to the column Mac takes bite out of Windows by Paul Andrews in the Seattle Times with stories about recently converted Windows users. In Windows sufferers: It’s not your fault, but it is your problem — switch to Mac, the editor writes:

The last person we personally helped to switch from Windows to Mac told us, to paraphrase, “It was literally obscene what I was doing to myself with Windows. Like strapping on 20-pound ankle weights to run a marathon when there is no such race requirement. This Mac is like pure magic in comparison…

By the way, regarding Bove’s use of the term “Windows sufferers,” way to go! We believe our own SteveJack coined this term using it, along with “Wintel sufferers,” at least as early as 1998 via online BBS discussions to quickly contrast with “Mac users.” If you know of any earlier usage, please let us know.

Actually, the “Windows sufferers” bit is Paul Andrews’ wonderful prose. My contribution, “it’s not your fault, but it is your problem” is from the 12-step program model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in the 1930s — the most widely used and successful approach for dealing with addictive behaviors. One chapter of my book, Just Say No to Microsoft, provides all 12 steps. Here’s step 1: It is not your fault, but it is your problem. Admit you are powerless over your addiction — and that your computer system and software have become unmanageable.

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Microsoft Live — No Guts?

In his Nerd’s Eye View column Microsoft Live: Dead on Arrival, Fred Davis points out that Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place with Windows Live and Office Live:

Although Microsoft has done well with its copy-cat strategy in the past, the company is up against what may turn out to be the toughest competitor it’s ever faced: Google. Google has the advantage of not having to limit its offerings to protect other parts of its business. Microsoft is already going to upset a lot of its software developer partners by competing with them with the Office Live paid services…

For Microsoft’s Live strategy to really have a life of its own, Microsoft must be willing to make Windows Live and Office Live strong enough to not just kill off the competition, but also to kill off Microsoft’s existing software-based business. Whether they have both the vision and the guts to do so remains to be seen.

As I wrote in Live Dead: Microsoft Demos its Version of the 21st Century Internet, Microsoft’s free services won’t replace its commercial software. Live Office, for example, will simply be an incremental improvement to the service already offered — the Office Online Web site for extras like downloadable templates. Live Office will add sales and collaboration tools and 10 gigs of free storage. This is not rocket science or even Googleware. It just scans nicely for the newspapers.

Windows Live is even less thrilling. Customize your home page, add RSS feeds, use a Web mail client that looks more like Outlook. Give me a break. It is basically a customization engine for MSN. Its coolest feature is something Mac users have had in their Dashboards for about a year: “gadgets” (which are similar to the Mac’s “widgets”).

The Mac might have been easy for Microsoft to copy-cat, but Google is an animal of a different stripe. If I worked at Microsoft, I’d be proposing that the company split itself into three companies: the Live group, the Office/applications group, the Windows/Vista group. Let them compete freely and then see what happens in this competitive race with Google.

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Microsoft Live — No Guts?

In his Nerd’s Eye View column Microsoft Live: Dead on Arrival, Fred Davis points out that Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place with Windows Live and Office Live:

Although Microsoft has done well with its copy-cat strategy in the past, the company is up against what may turn out to be the toughest competitor it’s ever faced: Google. Google has the advantage of not having to limit its offerings to protect other parts of its business. Microsoft is already going to upset a lot of its software developer partners by competing with them with the Office Live paid services…

For Microsoft’s Live strategy to really have a life of its own, Microsoft must be willing to make Windows Live and Office Live strong enough to not just kill off the competition, but also to kill off Microsoft’s existing software-based business. Whether they have both the vision and the guts to do so remains to be seen.

As I wrote in Live Dead: Microsoft Demos its Version of the 21st Century Internet, Microsoft’s free services won’t replace its commercial software. Live Office, for example, will simply be an incremental improvement to the service already offered — the Office Online Web site for extras like downloadable templates. Live Office will add sales and collaboration tools and 10 gigs of free storage. This is not rocket science or even Googleware. It just scans nicely for the newspapers.

Windows Live is even less thrilling. Customize your home page, add RSS feeds, use a Web mail client that looks more like Outlook. Give me a break. It is basically a customization engine for MSN. Its coolest feature is something Mac users have had in their Dashboards for about a year: “gadgets” (which are similar to the Mac’s “widgets”).

The Mac might have been easy for Microsoft to copy-cat, but Google is an animal of a different stripe. If I worked at Microsoft, I’d be proposing that the company split itself into three companies: the Live group, the Office/applications group, the Windows/Vista group. Let them compete freely and then see what happens in this competitive race with Google.

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Sound Bytes in Seattle

Mac takes bite out of Windows by Paul Andrews of The Seattle Times includes a few words from yours truly:

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from a friend or colleague with a monumental Windows problem. I tell them I’m glad to help, on one condition: Next time they buy a computer, they agree to consider a Macintosh…

“There’s huge awareness among the general public about how much [Windows] PCs have been compromised,” said Tony Bove, author of a new book, “Just Say No To Microsoft” (No Starch Press, $24.95). “My mother knows about it, and she’s not even a computer user.”

Note that we’re talking mostly about personal use, not corporate. Most newspaper reporters and other enterprise workers I know use Windows because their employers supply them with Windows.

Custom Windows applications also keep users from switching, Bove said. But he expects many apps will become Web-based over time, meaning any computer can access them….

For now, anecdotal evidence suggests something is going on. Bove likes to tell Windows sufferers, “It’s not your fault. But it is your problem.”

This idea is not new — I cribbed it from the 12-step program model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) in the 1930s, which has become the most widely used and successful approach for dealing with addictive behaviors, and it serves as a useful guide for weaning yourself of Microsoft software. One chapter of my book, Just Say No to Microsoft, provides all 12 steps. Here’s step 1: It is not your fault, but it is your problem. Admit you are powerless over your addiction — and that your computer system and software have become unmanageable.

Indeed. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, said it much better in his essay on Windows 95:

Even the best designed systems can be a nightmare to upgrade, but whatever things Microsoft may be famous for — the wealth of its founder, the icy grip he exerts on what is arguably the most important industry on this planet — good systems design is not, as it happens, one of them.

The last time I visited my mother, my aunt who needed a computer was also visiting. She had not taken my previous advice to get a Mac; now she was perplexed by this new Windows computer. “It was all set up for me to check email and browse the Web,” she said like a champ, “but I don’t know the first thing about doing anything else.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.

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Toppling the Tower of Power in the Music Biz

The recent controversy over Sony BMG’s copy-protected music CDs demonstrates how dangerous this technology can be for a typical Windows PC user. Mac OS X and Linux were immune to this particular digital rights management (DRM) mechanism, but neither are immune to the FairPlay DRM employed by Apple’s iTunes online music store. The iPod’s success has in turn given the iTunes FairPlay protected format the lion’s share of the market.

And Sony BMG is fighting back in a war of words by redirecting iPod consumer questions back to Apple:

If you believe that you should be able to easily move tracks from your protected CD to your iPod then we encourage you to use the following link to contact Apple directly and tell them so [link].

While I don’t like monopolistic practices, and Apple is clearly acting that way by not licensing its FairPlay DRM system to competitors, I have to point out that Apple’s FairPlay DRM is, right now, still the most flexible for consumers. That could change, however. According to Declaration of InDRMpendence by ZDNet‘s David Berlind, DRM is a Trojan horse “of the worst kind”:

What you need to know is that DRM can be, and has proven to be, a Trojan horse.  In a back and forth thread of e-mails, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s John Gilmore described to me how DRM technology basically allows those who sit at the controls of it to arbitrarily change the rules.  For example, one day, with Apple’s iTunes, we were able to burn the same playlist as many as ten times. A day later, it was seven. 

To be fair, iTunes still lets you place the songs in a second playlist and then burn seven more. The fact that you can still burn as many CDs as you want from the music gives you an out — you can burn a CD, then re-rip the music into another system. Audio quality suffers because you’re re-compressing something that was already compressed once, but most people won’t hear the difference.

But could any DRM mechanism not be compared to a Trojan horse? It depends on your opinion of rights management. If you believe that DRM should allow the transfer of music from one format to another, then you would probably agree with ZDNet‘s Dana Blankenhorn’s modest proposal in his blog entry Open source lessons from the Sony scandal:

Can we work on an open source system that will discourage mass market pirates while promoting fair use?

An open-source, freely licensed DRM would provide for protected music what MP3 provides for free music: a standard that every manufacturer can support, even Apple. That would make FairPlay a value-added format (perhaps for higher quality music formats). Sounds about right — you could still choose the open-source DRM format rather than the FairPlay format for cross-platform music management.

But if DRM is to succeed, it can’t be easily defeated by your typical teenage hacker — even if it is an open-source mechanism free to all manufacturers, even if the liberally licensed Microsoft DRM overtakes and eventually topples the Apple iPod tower of power (sorry, ever since that Sony BMG story, I can’t resist sprinkling band names linked to Sony BMG in my stories).

In fact, shouldn’t the record companies come to their senses and stop fussing over DRM?

Apple, Microsoft, and Judas Priest, They Were the Best of Friends…

DRM itself is shaping up to be an example of not being careful for what you wish for. In this case, the entertainment industry wished for DRM, but to get it, the industry’s record labels are losing control of the music business to the technology companies that own DRM. The snake is eating its own tail.

The beneficiaries are Apple and Microsoft, according to Declaration of InDRMpendence by ZDNet‘s David Berlind:

Microsoft and Apple couldn’t have asked for a better gift horse (Hollywood) to come their way, seeking a solution that ultimately gives back to it what it has for so long wanted.  Both companies had a razor (the DRM playback technology) and all they needed were some blades (the music).  Today, with every individual DRM-wrapped piece of content that gets sold, we are securing the futures of the DRM licensors (mostly Apple and Microsoft). That content will forever be useless unless you have something that includes their playback technologies… By continuing to buy DRM-wrapped content, we as consumers are actually unwittingly co-conspiring with Hollywood to give Microsoft and Apple the keys to the kingdom.

Are we as consumers setting the stage for the next monopoly grab, whether it be Apple or Microsoft? I don’t think so. John Gilmore’s famous quote, “The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it” might apply. Perhaps the concept of DRM is simply not appropriate in the open-source world, and that’s a good thing. We as consumers will always have alternatives, even in a world where Apple is the Tower of Power.

Let the Record Companies Eat Cake, Hot Tuna, Leftover Salmon…

As musicians and artists, we also now have alternatives to the Big Five Towers of Power — the record labels. Berlind goes on to point out that, thanks to DRM, the record industry is giving away its business:

It’s no wonder Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. is threatening to put his foot down now.  He sees control over his business — for example, who sets the price of the music he sells — slipping away to the tech titans. [See Why Apple Won’t Up-Charge Downloads by Arik Hesseldahl in BusinessWeek Online.]

But the history of record labels and companies is that they’ve taken control of the market through technology (remember RCA? The 45-rpm vinyl record? The LP of the 1960s?) and through cartel-like control over distribution. Don’t weep for them. Let’s not forget that their “business” is based on manufacturing, promoting, and selling discs through their captive retail outlets. The major record label’s power has always been its control over the distribution channel for music. The Internet replaces this distribution channel and slowly erodes that power and with it the majors’ control over the artists.

So what? It is laughable to say that record labels develop talent; their business model is to exploit talent. So why not have an Apple (or even a Microsoft) that changes the business model, and in addition, an open-source model that challenges Apple and Microsoft?

Bands stand a better chance of direct compensation by selling music online or giving away their music and selling merchandise and concert tickets — not by selling discs in stores. Just ask any minor artists whether the economics of CD distribution benefits them.

I think a wide variety of major artists should go directly to Apple, treat it as a record label, and cut their own deal, bypassing the traditional record labels altogether. That would give them a bigger cut of their own music, and open the iPod market to them. I also think these artists, and most of the minors who never make it into the iTunes store, should give open-source distribution a test, and try to sell other things (merch, concert tics, etc.).

After the Sony BMG story, Leadbelly must be turning over in his grave. Unfortunately his works are sold by Sony BMG, but all he ever wanted was to sing for his freedom.

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Big Brother and the Sony BMG Company: The Perfect DRM Storm

Are copy-protected Sony BMG music CDs bad for your computer health?

First, the good news: The Sony BMG protection scheme everyone’s upset about has no effect on Mac OS X or Linux systems — the CDs function as ordinary audio CDs. (Yet another reason to get off Windows.)

If you persist in using Windows, you should know that the copy protection scheme employed on Sony BMG’s music CDs for the past eight months can wreak havoc with Windows PCs and can’t be easily uninstalled.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears in the Blogosphere

The blogosphere perked with excitement about the Sony BMG protection scheme, and the blog entry Sony Music CDs surreptitiously install DRM Trojan horses on PCs by ZDNet‘s David Berlind set the tone:

Reports are beginning to turn up around the Web that discuss how certain CDs from Sony Music come with a Trojan horse-based digital restrictions management (DRM) technology that surreptitiously installs itself as a rootkit on Windows PCs. When software surreptitiously installs a rootkit, it’s usually doing so to cover its tracks — a technique commonly associated with malware such as viruses and Trojan horses.  Rootkits generally latch themselves onto the foundation or “roots” of an operating system in a variety of ways that not only prevent their detection, but also their extraction.

For the outstanding play-by-play investigation into how this rootkit came to be installed, see Sony, Rootkits And Digital Rights Management Gone Too Far by Mark Russinovich. Mark traced the rootkit to Sony BMG’s protected CD Get Right with the Man by the Van Zant brothers. His summary:

Not only had Sony put software on my system that uses techniques commonly used by malware to mask its presence, the software is poorly written and provides no means for uninstall. Worse, most users that stumble across the cloaked files with a RKR scan will cripple their computer if they attempt the obvious step of deleting the cloaked files.

The cloaked code intercepts and redirects low level Windows system calls, forces the audio through a custom player provided on the music CD, and restricts the number of CD burns you can make. It was developed by First 4 Internet, a British firm that has deals not only with Sony BMG Music Entertainment but also with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and EMI.

The moves with First 4 Internet are part of a larger copy-protection push by Sony BMG that also includes SunnComm and its MediaMax technology. While SunnComm has been Sony BMG’s primary partner on commercial releases, First 4 Internet’s XCP has been used on prerelease CDs by record labels; Sony BMG is the first to commercially deploy First 4 Internet’s XCP. News of this agreement appeared in Reuters and was picked up by CNET U.K. in the report Sony tests technology to limit CD burning.

Within days of Berlind’s blog entry above, the blogosphere went agog. According to Berlind’s entry Sony offers removal and replacement for rootkit DRM:

As if news of the underhanded technique wasn’t bad enough for Sony BMG, the situation spiraled even further out of control when it became apparent that Russinovich’s exposure of the rootkit’s details may have given hackers the hall pass they needed to treat the rootkit as a back door entry point into “infected” systems. 

A fair question to ponder is how much damage has this done to Sony BMG’s reputation, and how costly is it for Sony BMG to react within days of the blog posting to provide a way to remove the Trojan horse rootkit.

Yo-Yo Ma! How Do You Get Rid of This?

Sony BMG will help you step-by-step, but only if you supply them with information using this uninstall request page. Alas, you need to use Internet Explorer with ActiveX to use this method. Avoid this if you can, until Sony fixes it later this month.

You can also find a downloadable uninstaller on the XCP Support Software Updates page, which displays a First 4 Internet copyright notice but little else. It includes the following notice:

This Service Pack removes the cloaking technology component that has been recently discussed in a number of articles published regarding the XCP Technology used on SONY BMG content protected CDs. This component is not malicious and does not compromise security. However to alleviate any concerns that users may have about the program posing potential security vulnerabilities, this update has been released to enable users to remove this component from their computers.

What appears to be the same update is available from this Sony BMG page.

The cavalier attitude expressed in the update notice — “This component is not malicious and does not compromise security. However to alleviate any concerns…” points to a larger problem: indifference to PC users’ needs. The component does indeed compromise security — you should be concerned. According to Sony to patch copy-protected CD by John Borland of CNET News.com:

Rootkits, while not intrinsically malicious, are viewed with deep suspicion by many in the software development community. They are extraordinarily difficult to find and remove without specific instructions, and attempts to modify the way they act can even damage the normal functioning of a computer.

In the case of the First 4 Internet software, attempts to remove it manually rendered the CD drive of the computer inoperable, Russinovich found. Several antivirus companies followed Russinovich’s news with warnings that the First 4 Internet tools could let virus writers hide malicious software on computers, if the coders piggybacked on the file-cloaking functions.

Sony BMG considered the security concerns to be old news. According to the CNET News.com report Sony CD protection sparks security concerns:

In any case, First 4 has moved away from the techniques used on the Van Zant album to new ways of cloaking files on a hard drive, said Mathew Gilliat-Smith, the company’s CEO… “I think this is slightly old news,” Gilliat-Smith said. “For the eight months that these CDs have been out, we haven’t had any comments about malware (malicious software) at all.”

But its a Tenacious D-RM…

What Sony BMG does not seem to understand is that it is fanning the flames of discontent in the blogosphere with this update — it supposedly removes the DRM protection but actually does not.

Andrew Orlowski in Sony to offer patch for ‘rootkit’ DRM points out that the patch that Sony will offer doesn’t remove the rootkit — it just removes the cloak, making them visible:

Sony’s decision to offer a ‘patch’ that fails to remove the DRM code suggests it isn’t too concerned by the howls of outrage heard this week from sophisticated PC users. And with this level of apathy, the music giants will be emboldened to try these techniques again. And again.

According to this report in Freedom to Tinker:

The update is more than 3.5 megabytes in size, and it appears to contain new versions of almost all the files included in the initial installation of the entire DRM system, as well as creating some new files. In short, they’re not just taking away the rootkit-like function — they’re almost certainly adding things to the system as well. And once again, they’re not disclosing what they’re doing.

If you have tried to remove the rootkit, please respond to this topic with your observations.

Another Reason to Avoid the System of a Downer

It is interesting to note that the Sony DRM scheme does not install any Trojan horse into Mac OS X — the CD plays normally. The software that plays the disc in Windows does not work in OS X. In fact, you can rip the music directly into iTunes without any problems.

For Windows users, Sony’s DRM scheme makes it difficult to rip CDs and listen to them with an iPod. It is primarily designed to put pressure on Apple to open the iPod to other music services, rather than making it dependent on the iTunes Music Store for downloads. It is really not about copy protection, as it penalizes only people who would time-shift music (to play it on a portable player) or format-shift it (transfer the music from one format, such as audio CD, to another, such as MP3). It does not affect music piracy, because it would take only one individual to break the copy protection for the CD and put the music on the Internet.

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Live Dead: Microsoft Demos its Version of the 21st Century Internet

You can’t make this stuff up: Microsoft demonstrated its Windows Live service to the top 200 journalists and analysts in the computer industry at a conference today [Nov. 1, 2005] in San Francisco, and the demo failed.

Sometimes I wonder whether Gates and company allow demos to fail on purpose, to give their announcements a “roll up your shirt sleeves” feeling — like there’s real software development going on. When Stewart Alsop started the annual Demo conference, speakers joked about “giving sacrifices to the Demo gods” before launching their premature products. What sacrifice did Microsoft make before showing this demo? Innovation, perhaps?

Eventually the demo worked, and Microsoft showed how people could use a sidebar to subscribe to RSS feeds, load podcasts and enter search queries onto a personalized Windows Live home page. Microsoft also presented the Windows Live Safety Center, a free tool that lets customers check on the health of their PC and scan for and remove viruses, and an AJAX-based Windows Live mail client that resembles Microsoft Outlook. Click here to visit the Windows Live demo.

Windows Live is a set of Internet-based personal services, such as e-mail, blogging and instant messaging. It will be primarily supported by advertising and be separate from the operating system itself. Office Live will come in both ad-based and subscription versions that augment Microsoft Office on the desktop.

According to a news report by CNET News.com’s Ina Fried, Gates: We’re entering ‘live era’ of software, “The idea of an online adjunct to Office and Windows is not entirely new. The company already has its Office Online Web site that gets about 55 million unique users a month and offers items such like downloadable templates.”

What is new is Microsoft’s sea change to advertising-supported services for the consumer. In what is perhaps the understatement of the year, Gates said at the conference, “This advertising model has emerged as a very important thing.”

Microsoft’s vision is essentially this: to combine its client sofware with peer-to-peer and Internet services. This “software plus service” model guarantees a revenue stream for Microsoft at the high (corporate) end of the market, while using advertising to subsidize free services at the low (consumer) end. The strategy will lock consumers into using free services at the price of client software and operating system upgrades.

In other words, free products won’t replace paid software. Many of the Live releases will have payment tiers, with the lowest levels free and ad-supported, and higher-end versions pricey as usual.

Here’s an excerpt of a report from the conference, Gates sketches out Windows and Office Live by ZDNet‘s Dan Farber:

At this point it appears Gates is pivoting Microsoft into the 21st century Internet by explaining how Microsft will leverage its current platforms and add more of what MSN has and open APIs to expand the ecosystem of what developers can do on the Web or on top of Office and Windows…and sell more Web-based advertising with its new adCenter platform. Basically, Gate and company have recognized the economic power of what Google, Yahoo, and even AOL have done. Within the next ten years, I’ll predict that MSN will be at the center of Microsoft and generate most of the revenue.

I think Dan’s on the right track with this prediction… but only if Microsoft continues as a single monolith for the next ten years. Odds are good that Microsoft will one day divide itself into smaller, more aggressive entities pursuing these strategies, leaving the operating system entity holding the monopoly bag.

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Microsoft: Protecting You From Its Software

Microsoft not only has plans to enter the anti-virus and security sectors of the software market, but also has plans to offer fee-based security services. This is bad news — simply by entering the security market, Microsoft could stall innovation by freezing the venture capital spent on Windows security, which, in the long run, will lead to less security against spyware, not more.

So what would stop Microsoft from using its spyware tools to disable any competing spyware detectors? Indeed, what would stop Microsoft from turning into the largest protection racket ever seen, in which the company compels billions of people to pay fees to protect themselves from the bad effects of Microsoft’s own software?

John Dvorak, in his PC Magazine column The Microsoft Protection Racket, points out the obvious:

Does Microsoft think it is going to get away with charging real money for any sort of add-on, service, or new product that protects clients against flaws in its own operating system? Does the existence of this not constitute an incredible conflict of interest? Why improve the base code when you can sell “protection”? Is Frank Nitti the new CEO?

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. As Dvorak describes it:

The exploits utilized by malware are possible because of flaws within the Microsoft code base. There is no incentive to fix the code base if it can make additional money selling “protection”…

Microsoft cannot fix the code — that’s the point. It apparently cannot be done. Get over it. And when the spyware epidemic appeared, the company had to throw in the towel. Spyware exploits the basic architecture of the operating system, and no amount of patches will change that.

Back on Friday the 13th of May, 2005, Microsoft announced that it is testing a subscription security service called OneCare that guards against spyware and virus attacks that plague Windows. Microsoft’s acquisition of several anti-virus and anti-spyware companies in 2004 and 2005 indicates that this service may allow Microsoft to compete directly with (as in, put out of business) Symantec and McAfee, which have built entire businesses based on Windows’ weaknesses.

OneCare is in beta; you can check it out for yourself. Here’s an excerpt from its opening blurb:

Are you tired of spending time trying to protect and maintain your computer? Are you worried that you’re still not doing everything you should to keep it safe and running at optimal performance? If your answer is “Yes,” then Windows OneCare is for you.

What makes a protection racket work? The lack of choice. In a report back in May, 2005 by CRN by Barbara Darrow, Microsoft Starts Testing Windows OneCare Security Subscription Service, David Friedlander, senior analyst with Forrester Research, questioned whether customers would be happy with such a service. “Will customers trust Microsoft enough to buy a security product from them as well as an operating system that needs to be protected?” Only if Microsoft makes an offer you couldn’t refuse.

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Who Switches First, Business User or Consumer?

Would the switch to Open Source software — or for that matter, anything that’s not Microsoft — be as attractive or even more attractive to individual/home computer users than business users?

ZDNet‘s Dana Blankenhorn thinks business users, and in particular Microsoft Office users, find it far more attractive from a cost point of view, while individual/home users will continue to be shy about it. He writes in his Open Source blog entry The real threat to Microsoft in open source:

When any good goes into mass production its cost goes down. Microsoft has flouted this law for decades. In fact, today’s Microsoft Office costs as much, or more, than it did 20 years ago, despite the fact that the number of users has grown exponentially.

Open source projects pass these savings on to the consumers of software. It’s not just free to get. It’s free to upgrade. And you only pay for open source when you need someone’s help, for training, for implementation, for fixes. Then, you pay only for the cost of the labor you need.

For a scaled user this makes open source a real bargain. The labor costs exist anyway, even in Windows IT shops. The costs of transitioning to open source are manageable, and the later savings go straight to the bottom line.

I certainly agree with the above, or I wouldn’t be doing this blog. But Dana goes on…

This is not as true for individual users. For a consumer with a PC or two, the costs of Windows now includes some management services, and support. Even for a small network manager (and this includes many homeowners) there are education and training costs to be paid up-front, plus the possibility of big-ticket service calls down the line.

I think it is as true for individual users. Although many of them just “buy a computer” without thinking Windows vs. whatever, all it would take is a strong advertising campaign and a cheaper computer than a Mac (whether it run Linux or Mac OS X or anything else) to hit the market. I think this will happen within two years. In short, Vista will face serious competition.

Cost, of course, is not the only issue. As a consumer and unofficial support dept. for my extended family’s computers, I have to agree with the comment to Dana’s blog entry that single Windows users get very little support. Let’s not forget that Microsoft typically refers customers with problems to their hardware vendors. Thus, support for a Windows PC has been largely the province of Dell, Sony, Toshiba, Gateway, or your local computer fixer who put together PCs from parts. Consumers bounce back and forth like a pinball between the flippers of the manufacturer’s support department and the Microsoft support department as they pointed accusing fingers at each other. To make matters worse, support from companies like Dell is worse than no support at all. These companies seem to spend more on advertising their wonderful support than on improving their support to make it even moderately useful.

Microsoft’s own updates are suspect. Remember that many of the problems caused by the Windows SP2 update include issues with anti-virus programs, remote desktops, filesharing, email notifications, and online multi-player games — activities that affect consumers. The SP2 problems related to anti-virus applications were disconcerting, because these applications are the first line of defense against virus attacks. Perhaps Microsoft didn’t move fast enough to help the vendors of anti-virus applications, because Microsoft is looking to expand into this area with its own anti-virus products.

The market takes a while to educate, but people will eventually understand these issues, and competitors will exploit them with advertising campaigns. Meanwhile, the mainstream business market is moving more quickly to embrace Microsoft alternatives.

Small business owners and workers — the ones caught in the middle between consumer issues and business issues — are likely to be slowest to adopt something other than Microsoft, if only because they’ll continue to use what they have and probably won’t upgrade to new Microsoft products, either.

Mitchell Kapor, Lotus founder, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a man who, by fighting the ultimate spreadsheet war with Lotus 1-2-3 against Excel, gave Bill Gates the most competition Microsoft ever had. As Kapor put it in his own blog:

Ultimately, positive action to rein in Microsoft will be taken when the general public realizes they’re being had; that as a society we’re being forced to pay huge costs in lost productivity due to the unnecessary difficulty of using computers; and when the basically amoral and ruthless character of Microsoft’s leadership is graphically revealed.

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Will Zombie PCs Keep Microsoft Profitable?

Two interesting stories about Microsoft hit the news today, and one wonders if they are related.

First, Microsoft has sued 13 spamming operations that use zombie PCs to send out millions of spam. According to CNET News.com, Microsoft takes on spam zombies by Joris Evers, Microsoft believes more than half of all spam is sent by zombies.

A zombie is a PC typically connected to the Internet via a broadband connection that has been infected with a Trojan horse that enables spammers to use the PC remotely to send spam or commit online crimes. PCs running Windows are the primary if not the only targets for zombification, largely because they can’t be kept secure without more help from Microsoft (such as security patches and updates).

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched “Operation Spam Zombie” and asked Internet service providers to quarantine zombies and help users clean the PCs. Tim Cranton, director of Internet Safety Enforcement Programs at Microsoft, said in the report, “We believe there are tens of millions of zombie computers out there.”

Second, Microsoft is gearing up for a major product blitz, a “big bang” that some say may be the company’s last. According to CNET News.com, Microsoft’s ‘big bang’ could be its last by Ina Fried, a flurry of new products will ship in the coming months, some more than five years in the making.

However, the coming splash of new products could be the last such “big bang” for Microsoft. Many expect the company to offer more measured, but more frequent releases in the coming years… One way that Microsoft is trying to regain its nimbleness is by offering more services that connect to its server and desktop software. Then the company could sell and distribute incremental updates to Windows and Office much more quickly, either as a one-time sale or on a subscription basis.

OK, so there are tens of millions of zombie PCs out there, and Microsoft is working with the FTC and Internet service providers to identify them and “help users clean” their PCs. Why do I feel there is a connection? Because Microsoft is gearing up to offer security services and incremental updates, and the fees for these services and updates — which every zombie PC will require — could keep the company profitable for years to come. Those that believe Microsoft’s hype about security and the upcoming Vista system will wait for, and then pay for, Vista. For Microsoft, zombie PCs are a win-win situation.

So perhaps if you have a zombie PC, consider switching to a system other than Windows. Otherwise, expect to pay more for security from Microsoft. That’s what I think will happen in 2006.

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