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Boycott Microsoft
— Copyright © 2006, P. Lutus  Message Page

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Those who visit my site regularly will remember an earlier essay on the topic of Microsoft's rather unbelievable Windows XP licensing policy. After publishing that article, more than anything else I noticed ... silence. People apparently thought Microsoft was in the right, or they were too afraid of the software behemoth to dare raise their voices. In any case, I received very little correspondence about Microsoft, while at the same time receiving a blizzard of correspondence about God (in re "On Believing"). It's an interesting time we live in, when people are comfortable criticizing how God runs his business, but aren't comfortable criticizing how Bill Gates runs his.

Four years later, because of a dramatic decline in Microsoft's position in the world of computer software, and aware of its increasingly dated content, I decided to remove this page's original content. As time passed, as Microsoft began to act more and more like a petulant child, and as their position and influence have declined, my original combative prose seemed increasingly like ridiculing a handicapped person on the street, behavior no civilized person would accept. So, for a spell, this page said little more than "Content Withdrawn."

It has come to me that my rather strict position on simple issues like spelling and grammar has had the effect of discouraging people from writing me, people concerned their prose would suffer the withering gaze of a pedant. But take heart, dear reader — not everyone cowers in silence. Today I received a message entitled "Death throws of the dinasaur" (literacy score: 60%1), a message more noteworthy for its content than its form, but one that served to remind me to update this article.

I've been reading about the new Windows version named "Vista," whose release is imminent as I write (late October 2006). Based on what Microsoft has in mind for Vista, I had been considering a new version of this "Boycott Microsoft" page, but today's highly literate correspondent pushed me over the edge (in more ways than one), and this is the result.

Also, since the time of the original article, I've read a number of revealing exposés of Microsoft's internal workings, like this one. These articles describe a very large company with a very small company's way of building software.

In the article linked above, several versions of which can be accessed by submitting a Google search string of "microsoft spaghetti cowboy", Microsoft insiders describe a dreadful software culture in which widely accepted software development practices, like structured and object-oriented top-down design methods, are just not honored by the most influential software house in the world. As a result of these practices Microsoft has recently been forced to abandon its original plan for Vista as too complex and unmanageable to ever work as intended.

The reasons for the present sad state of the Windows code base are easy to state. Windows has evolved over time from a rather primitive application meant to move files from a computer's memory to a floppy disk (hence its original name "DOS"2). Over time, reminiscent of human DNA and for the same messy evolutionary reasons, Windows has come to harbor within it an unbelievable fruit basket of sheer garbage that has managed to attach itself to, and make itself seem essential to, the overall functioning of the organism. One example is the presence of, and support for, drive letters, one of the many Achilles' heels built into Windows.

Drive Letters
Please excuse this digression into a seemingly minor point. A drive letter is a throwback to an earlier era of computer science, a time when the ability to create a named abstraction for an unadorned number had not yet been dreamt of.

A drive letter is in essence a base-26 number that identifies a storage device. Modern operating systems identify storage devices by function or content rather than by number, with many advantages to both the human and the machine.

The drawbacks to identifying storage devices by number are legion, but this one example will suffice — if you move your hard drive from one location to another within your computer, and if the drive happens to contain a copy of Windows, the system will cease to function until you adjust your expectations downward to conform to Windows' innate limitations.

There are a number of hacks to get around this Windows throwback. Most involve — well, I can't think of any other way to say it — lying, translating reality into a form that Windows will understand, crafting a tale at odds with reality. It would be like bringing a Stone Age man into modern times and expecting him to be able to function. But to prevent the caveman's mental breakdown you would have to lie about certain things. I personally don't want to be there when the caveman learns women have the right to vote.

It would be nice if the Stone Age man didn't care that women can vote, and it would be nice if Windows didn't care where you locate your storage devices. Modern people should only care about the content of your character, not your race, gender or where you live. By the same token, modern operating systems should only care about the content of a storage device, not where it is plugged in.

My readers may wonder why I rant about this at such length. It's because, at a time when computers can reliably connect up with each other through thin air in a busy marketplace, Windows still bluntly and stupidly refuses to accept your having changed the connection point for a storage device. And Microsoft wants to charge you a lot of money to have this experience.
In a number of ways, Vista repeats earlier Microsoft product releases. First comes the announcement of an upcoming revolution in operating system technology. Then, over a period of months or years, the original grand plans are abandoned piecemeal. The ship date slips off into the future. Then the product finally arrives and turns out to be an incremental update of the prior version, an example of evolution, not revolution.

But there is one difference — along with abandoning the primary design goals for the new Windows version, this time Microsoft has declared open war on its customers. There is a contract between Microsoft and its customers, a contract named the End User License Agreement (EULA3). It represents the formal mutual agreement between the seller and the buyer of Windows, and the new version is quite a read.

The new EULA is so restrictive that, in my opinion, people would refuse to buy Windows if they fully understood it. Here are some points from the small print:

  1. A particular copy of Vista can only change hands once. After that, your expensive copy of Windows becomes a cup coaster, a reflective plastic bauble.

  2. Users may only carry out a major system hardware upgrade (example: new motherboard), or migrate to a new computer, once. After that, they must buy a new copy of Windows (see updates below for a hasty revision to this condition).

  3. As to the increasingly popular practice of "virtualization4", if you buy one of the consumer versions of Vista, Microsoft simply won't allow it to happen. To meet the terms of the EULA, Windows can't be a guest operating system, it must be the only operating system. Sounds like garden-variety narcissism to me.

  4. According to the EULA, one can "use" but not "share" the Vista display's icons, images, sounds and media. No one seems to know what this means. Does it mean one cannot project the Vista display onto a screen in front of an audience? If so, this will seriously limit its usefulness to business professionals, or anyone foolish enough to purchase PowerPoint along with Vista.

  5. This phrase leaps off the page: "You may not work around any technical limitations in the software." Again, no one really understands the intention behind this language, but in my view, this short sentence by itself is ample reason to avoid the entire Vista experience. I spend much of my time working around technical limitations in software, as do all computer science professionals. It appears the true intent of this clause is to turn Microsoft's customers into supplicant drones.

  6. Moving beyond the pale, Microsoft has decided to control how computer professionals report Windows test results as a condition of their purchase of Vista. Put in everyday terms, in the new EULA, Microsoft asserts the right to control what people say about Windows in the press. Taken at face value, this means the only reason I can pen and publish this article and not hear from Microsoft's lawyers is because I avoid too much technical detail.

This is just a short sampling of the content of the new EULA, and prospective buyers should remember that Microsoft reportedly struggled to redefine the terms of the old, less restrictive, EULA after the fact. Also, there is an important legal principle here (IANAL5) that everyone needs to understand — regardless of the pure motives of the parties to a legal contract, the contract may contain "unconscionable" requirements, meaning requirements no reasonable or informed person would agree to if he grasped their meaning. Only time will tell whether this caveat applies to the Vista EULA.

Alternatives to Windows
Observant readers will notice my having sprinkled the term "modern operating system" like a garnish through this article. What am I talking about? Isn't Windows the sine qua non of operating systems, the standard by which other operating systems are defined? In point of fact, no — Windows is an atavism, a throwback. In an apt commentary on how human societies work, Windows is the mediocre least common denominator that has come into a position of dominance by sheer force of persistence and ubiquity (in this connection, does the name "George Bush" ring a bell? No, wait — does the name "Pavlov" ring a bell?).

Linux has until recently been one of the minor players in this drama. Linux began as a college student's pet project, but its virtues have caused it to become increasingly popular. Some versions are not ready for an untrained home user to install and maintain without assistance, but overall Linux is gaining wide acceptance in institutional and educational settings where there is at least one knowledgeable computer person to sort problems out, and some versions of Linux are being developed specifically with the end user's needs in mind (example: Ubuntu).

As is true in any worthwhile debate, Linux advocates and detractors both have valid points. Linux advocates say Linux is technically better and more reliable than Windows, and they're right. Windows advocates point out that Windows is easier for an untrained person to install and use, and they're quite right as well, although this issue is being addressed.

But in the context of recent events, I think the pendulum is poised to swing. At a time when the entire Linux code base is out in the open for praise or criticism, Microsoft is trying to censor its technical critics, keep them from speaking openly about matters of public concern6. At a time when Linux is free (as always), Microsoft is raising its prices again. At a time when Linux is being adopted worldwide by governments, schools and individuals impressed more by power and reliability than corporate loyalty, Microsoft is offering less and demanding more than ever before in its history.

Which leads me to ask the question of the hour — where do you want to go today?

  • Ironically, some of Microsoft's most vehement critics work for Microsoft. Here's a quote from a 2004 e-mail written by Jim Allchin, a senior executive at Microsoft:

    "I'm not sure how the company lost sight of what matters to our customers, both business and home, the most, but in my view we lost our way. I think our teams lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what full scenarios mean, what security means, what performance means, how important current applications are, and really understanding what the most important problems our customers face are. I see lots of random features and some great vision, but that does not translate into great products."

    Couldn't have said it better myself. After fighting and losing the good fight, Mr. Allchin announced he is leaving Microsoft at the end of 2006.

  • Within a day of the posting of the above article (and before the official Vista release date), Microsoft backpedaled and decided to allow more than one reinstall of Vista. Their explanation (in part):
    "You may uninstall the software and install it on another device for your use. You may not do so to share this license between devices."

    "Our intention behind the original terms was genuinely geared toward combating piracy; however, it’s become clear to us that those original terms were perceived as adversely affecting an important group of customers: PC and hardware enthusiasts."
    Real boardroom-speak. My suggested translations:
    1. "There was such a hue and cry over the original restriction that we had to relent."

    2. "Although our corporate focus is on those who have no choice about using Windows, we didn't want to annoy those others who actually like computers."

    I wonder two things. One, how long will it be before Microsoft's fluid and variable licensing terms change again, and two, how many migrations will Microsoft allow? They don't specify, and they didn't allow an arbitrary number of migrations under XP.

    This change doesn't affect the resale terms, which allow only one sale or donation of Vista to a third party.

Further reading
  1. My simple literacy ranking:
    ls = 100 * (1-m/t)
    Where m = misspelled words, t = total words.

  2. Disk Operating System.

  3. Read the full EULA text here: http://www.microsoft.com/about/legal/useterms/

  4. Virtualization is a technology that allows more than one operating system to run at once, using a single processor. Microsoft's objection may seem to be reasonably based on a desire to protect its intellectual property rights, but reduced to its essence, this restriction says there is only Windows, there aren't any other operating systems, you will be assimilated, stop struggling.

  5. IANAL = "I Am Not A Lawyer".

  6. Obviously Microsoft cannot prevail in a campaign to censor responsible, critical voices, but what they appear to intend is to sow confusion and doubt through vague legalese, so that a critic might feel the need to hire a lawyer before speaking up. This is paraphrased in law as a "chilling effect."

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