Monday, April 30, 2007
Provoking the 800 pound gorilla
MSFT doesn't really care if some small fraction of MS-Windoze installations are "stolen." As others have observed, "pirated" Windoze enlarges the footprint, creating more demand for Windoze over time.
What bothers MSFT is loss of channel control. Almost all computer hardware and software is sold through a network of wholesalers, distributors, and resellers known as "the channel." MSFT's monopoly requires that MSFT be able to declare and enforce the rules of how the channel works: who gets how much of the cut, what retail customers are told, etc. It's a lot like the way cocaine and heroin are distributed. Fry's plays by the rules (selling almost all MSFT licenses with new computers or in retail shrink wrap, flooring Vista only...) and MSFT leaves them alone. Surpluscomputers.com doesn't (selling MSFT licenses on used computers, selling XP in 2007, selling more "OEM" than retail shrink wrap), and MSFT hits them hard.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
programs and processes, computer literacy
Some of my customers have trouble describing what is broken on their computers, or what they were trying to do when they got stuck. They can't say which program they were using, or which program popped up a warning or error message, because they don't know what programs are and how they're distinct from each other. The monopoly encourages that confusion. Confused people are helpless people, easier to exploit.
A computer program is a list of instructions that the computer can execute. A computer program that is running is called a "process."
(Purists may quibble. Some programs are written in a language that the Pentium 4 microprocessor chip doesn't execute directly all by itself. Instead there is another program which interprets that program. The Pentium 4 microprocessor actually executes the interpreter. That's an irrelevant quibble when we are talking about computers at this level of detail.)
In unix (that means GNU/Linux, Mac OS, Sun's Solaris, etc) we try to have a lot of little programs where each does one thing well, and in a way that they can work together to do larger things. In Ubuntu, when you drag a file from the USB drive to the desktop, you are seeing a whole bunch of programs working together. There's a program called Nautilis which presents a view of the contents of a folder on the screen. There's a font server that knows exactly what characters look like on the screen. Nautilis has to consult the font server to find out how to depict the name of a file. And Firefox can consult it, too. So there is no need for Firefox and Nautilis to know what characters look like. That knowledge only has to be in one place because the programs work together. There's a program called hotplug that figures out what to do when new hardware like a USB drive or a wifi card suddenly appears out of nowhere.
This matters because when something goes wrong you usually need to figure out which program screwed up before you can fix it. And if it all looks like (or is) one amorphous mass you can't really do that. Which is one reason MS-Windows is so hard to troubleshoot.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Why Vista has security problems
Unlike any other software company, MSFT has a business imperative to make its products as complex as possible. They're the "standard" and the complexity inhibits compatible competition like SAMBA and WINE.
It's a well known principle of software engineering that excessive complexity indicates a poor design and poor design management. A program that's a whole lot more complicated than it needs to be will have a whole lot more bugs than a simple program with the same function. In MSFT's case, it's intentional. They'd rather have a brittle, vulnerable product than competition, and their customers have no say in the matter.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
They're all the same, yadda yadda
No they're not.
Windows is a word in the dictionary. It's in the public domain.
That people refer to a proprietary operating system distribution
as "windows" is a travesty. MS-Windows is a "corporate standard".
"UNIX" is a trademark. I believe it belongs to a 501c3 these days. unix (generic) is in the public domain. It got that way when the last patent (set user-ID) expired in 1989, which made it legal to publish UNIX "clones" world wide without royalties. (And that's why there were no free unixes in the '80s and they were all over the place starting in about '92.) That's what makes it different from Windoze, fer peat's sake. Windoze belongs to them. Unix belongs to us. If you want to be ridiculously pedantic about it, POSIX and GNU are ours and UNIX is irrelevant, but in common usage all three are just "unix."
HTML is a public standard.
Intel, Motorola, and Macintosh are trademarks.
Plain old telephone service and 120VAC at 60Hz are public standards.
There's a real difference that matters in people's lives between corporate standards and public standards. It goes to at least four of the Ten Key Values of the Green Party.
PDF and RTF are "corporate standards," as far as I know. But they're published. The most important APIs and protocols in MS-Windows are trade secrets. That difference matters, too. You're not making ADBE more valuable when you create a PDF in the same way you make MSFT more valuable when you create an MS-Word document.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
how the "user friendly" vision was lost
Ease-of-use is about how efficient and comfortable you are once you have figured out what to do. Ease-of-starting is about whether you can do anything at all without reading and understanding instructions or being shown. For the first two decades of widespread availability of computers, ease-of-use was the gauge of "user friendliness." How well does it work once you know how to work it. Is the user interface reactive? Is it fast enough? Does the display give you a headache, or the noise make your ears ring? Then several Project Athena-inspired, relatively low cost computers hit the retail market, the most famous being Apple Macintosh. The Macintosh was a market failure in 1984. It was too expensive and didn't have any applications. Apple had aimed it at wealthy consumers and they weren't interested.
So Apple reconsidered its strategy and "repositioned" the product to appeal to businesses who wanted to reduce their investment in employee training. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the workforce was becoming disposable, and that investment was becoming a major problem. They would spend tons of money on low-performance computers if they could be used to do very simple tasks by completely untrained staff. At about that time, Microsoft Corporation (stock ticker symbol MSFT) spent a ton of money introducing a caricature of modern user-friendly software: MS-Windows and MS-Office. MSFT had a network-effects monopoly by then, and if they'd offered shit on a shingle it would still have been instantly "the standard."
"The Mac" and "Windows" redefined "user friendly." It wasn't about ease-of-use any more. It was about low training and dazzling appearance. It was a tragedy. The original vision of empowering computing driven by the users' (not the employers') needs, from Project Athena and Xerox PARC and Bell Labs, was bulldozed in the marketplace by Apples's and MSFT's marketing force. But it lived on in the Free Software movement, which wasn't constrained by shareholder demands. Our software is easy to use, once you make the effort to learn a little bit about it. Their software is harder to use but easier to get started with. I often hear it put, "it's easier to do easy things on the corporate stuff, it's easier to do hard things on freeware."
So think about that the next time you get frustrated with unfamiliar software. Why do you resent having to learn to use it? Computer literacy is an investment in yourself that makes you less disposable. Due to the Copyleft, the GNU system is part of your cultural heritage as a human being. Nobody can take it away from you. Learning about it will pay off as long as you use computers. That's why the monopoly wants you to make do without it. People who tell you "you don't need to know that" are not your friends.
Sunday, April 01, 2007
for the monopoly, 'piracy' is still a sale
The Reagan Pentagon commissioned a RAND study of the real strategic threats to the US. Of course killer malware was one of them. We haven't seen Al Queda's email virus yet, just the relatively harmless ones the spammers commission. A security conscious organization will move off of email systems that remain intentionally vulnerable to that threat. But there was a second threat: proprietary formats let a vendor hold a customer's data hostage. Suppose MSFT announced that starting next year they would charge you twenty cents each time you opened an MS-Word file. What's to stop them from doing that? How do you know MS-Office doesn't already have the mechanism in place to do it? RAND thought that was a bad risk for the Department of Defense to take. That's why the Reagan DoD and GSA kept buying generic unix while the private sector took the risk. It kept unix alive for a decade. Engineering and scientific work wasn't really a big enough market to keep the big manufacturers interested, it was government purchasing. Venezuela and Munich and Massachusetts aren't stupid; when they studied the problem they came to the same conclusion.
I never said MSFT products are inferior. MSFT has one of the best software quality assurance organizations in the world. They ship pretty much exactly what they want to ship. They like to point out that they've never had to re-release the flagships (Office and the OS) because a show-stopping bug made it to production, and it's true. I said MSFT's products are about the last place you'll find technological advances in software. They let everybody else take those risks. With their mindshare, they can get away with taking credit for everybody else's inventions when they get around to imitating or buying them. It's a lot like Edison Electric a century ago.
MSFT enjoys what reasonable economists would call a monopoly, in at least two of their target markets. It's the type of monopoly that depends on what economists call "network effects." In that kind of monopoly, it is far more important to suppress and control competition than to maximize revenue. It really doesn't matter to MSFT whether any particular instance of the flagships was paid for or "pirated." It's one more desktop or small-office/home-office server that's not running Red Flag or Ubuntu or FreeBSD.
Every keystroke someone pounds into MS-Word is another brick in MSFT's wall. That's the primary network effect. MSFT's nightmare is that the International Standards Organization's Open Document Format will cut seriously into MS-Office's share of daily and yearly document production over the next couple of years. It even went to the trouble of creating a decoy (OOXML) to confuse the issue and try to slow ODF down.