Saturday, February 16, 2008

Big is ugly, but expedient

The demise of Microsoft and Windows has been predicted for a long time, but this particular Titanic gets away with striking numerous technology icebergs because the boat has always been big enough to sit quietly on the bottom of the ocean with the bridge (and especially the Purser's cabin) above water. It's true that many of the passengers have drowned on the lower decks during the voyage, but Gates and Balmer still manage to strut the bridge unaffected by the chaos their Windows software is wreaking throughout the civilised world.

As any user of Microsoft software on desk top computers and laptops will be painfully aware, each week sees a rash of new "updates": the euphemism for "bug fixes", as Microsoft fights a never ending battle against the consequences of poor design and even worse quality assurance. Updates/bugs range from potentially catastrophic breaches of security (which is most of them) to trivial updates that ensure Microsoft keeps tabs on your wallet.

That Microsoft is allowed to monopolise personal computing in this way has been and remains in stark breach of just about every notion of monopoly market manipulation ever enacted in law, yet still they get away with it, apart from a couple of wrist-slaps that amount to small change. And no doubt as the cheque was reluctantly written, someone in the Republican and Democratic parties wondered if that it was going to mean $100m less for the political donation fund. Of course Microsoft's immunity from monopoly legislation has absolutely nothing to do with political donations or other efforts to buy immunity through heart-rending PR such as The Gates Foundation.

Only a paranoid conspiracy theorist could imagine such a silly thing.

Why does a company with over 85% of the world's desktop operating system software already in its pocket feel the need to produce costly updates, just when its last paid-for upgrade has reached a plateau of stability after exhaustive beta testing by a billion users? The only possible answer is to take money off the gullible; and because Microsoft fixes it so that retailers that PC World are curiously unable to sell the previous stable version of the operating system on new computers.

This tactic ensures sufficient neophytes are lumbered with something as awful as Vista that the rest of industry is strong-armed into having to follow suit and make itself compatible with Redmond’s latest abomination. It's like releasing a new strain of flu into the world means that vaccine makers are obliged to adapt their products to meet the challenge.

A lot of the reason for the Vista release was an effort to lock-in media owners and broadcasters with ever more convoluted copy protection schemes within the Windows Media environment. Ironically, the impossible complexity of maintaining even the most inept of DRM solutions makes the product unworkable for many, and users tried even harder to get hold of DRM-free content that doesn't mess with their players. So the industry is gradually starting to accept that if people want to pinch a tune or video, they will do so, DRM or not, so give the customers what they want at last. Quite why it has taken content owners quite so long to remember that radio and TV has been broadcasting easily recordable content for the best part of a century is a mystery.

This has lead to a healthy situation where recorded music is becoming promotional material for live performances - the live music scene has never been better, which is a great encouragement to real talent versus the manufactured talent that manipulative producers can invent and control. And the market fixing around CD and DVD pricing has collapsed.

It's another example of consumer benefit of the world of "open systems" and the power of communications diversity to enable and encourage innovation at the cost of a largely malevolent establishment that had thought it had sewn it all up long ago.

TMP suspects that there must also some way to review the UK's sinister supermarket hegemony and find ways to allow the benefits of "open systems" to protect consumers from the consequences of supermarket monopolies, and the ultimate absence of all choice and shops in town and village high streets. However, much retail consolidation arises from impossible volumes of (mostly EU) legislation that affect retailers, and to treat Tesco and Joe's Village Stores the same may seem second nature to the assorted jobsworths at the numerous enforcement agencies.

But don't hold your breath, since it's much simpler for government to "deal" with a handful of Tesco-sized HR departments than thousands of self-employed traders.

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