October 2001 Column


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Tastes great, less fat

If you've been reading this column for long, you'll know by now that I'm a sad bastard: that's "sad" as in "sadistic", not "sad" as in "unhappy". I enjoy kicking people when they're down, I pull the wings off flies, I use press releases in place of Andrex, and I'm generally not a nice person. In fact, I want to be MacBiter when I grow up -- only without the haemorrhoids.

Now, judging from my mailbag, most of you expect me to take cheap shots at Microsoft. And given my nasty disposition, you'd be quite justified in expecting me to do that. The reason I don't is that it gets old fast; and besides, it's just too damned easy, like stealing fleas from an alley cat. So I limit myself to one anti-Microsoft rant a year.

I'm feeling lazy this month -- not to mention exhausted from dragging my blistered feet around too many trade shows -- but my next scheduled Microsoft Denunciation Slot is Shopper #172. So this month I'm going to set the record straight and explain to you precisely why Bill Gates is wonderful and we all owe him a lot. And why that free software stuff is bad, like drugs, man.

FACT 1: Microsoft, through their selfless efforts, provide employment for hundreds of thousands of people.

According to an IDC study, 5.5 million server operating system licenses were shipped in 1999; of these, Microsoft Windows NT accounted for 38%, just under 2.1 million units. With an average uptime of around 30 days, an NT machine spends an average of half an hour a week offline, or 25 hours a year -- meaning that a years' worth of NT shipments represent 50 million hours during which a support engineer is slaving over a mouse trying to figure out why the machine BSOD'd on them. Given that there are 250 working days in a year, just one years' shipments of NT servers provides gainful employment for a hundred thousand engineers!

It's a truism that desktop systems are no more reliable than servers, but let us charitably assume the same maintenance ratio as for their servers. With annual sales of about 50 million PC's worldwide, all of which ship with a Windows license attached, we can see jobs -- or at least work -- beckoning for annother couple of million engineers (or users running Scandisk). Moreover, it is fairly well known that in a corporate environment one full-time support technician is required for every 50 users running Microsoft Outlook as their scheduler/email environment, or running Microsoft Office in a production setting. Those 50 million PC's represent a million more jobs! So, if we total in office product support and desktop operating system support, Microsoft generously donates an extra five million jobs a year to the global economy, at a cost of a hundred billion dollars or so.

(Of course, statistics are a wonderful thing in the hands of an economist. You can add to your GDP by digging holes and filling them in again. But to apply this kind of reasoning to Microsoft's contribution to our GDP would be cynical and, well, ungrateful. So don't do that.)

FACT 2: If everybody used Microsoft products, we'd all be able to inter-operate better.

This is indisputably true. There's nothing quite as likely to induce carpet-chewing rage as receiving a piece of email consisting entirely of a MIME attachment containing a Word document, with fast save enabled and in a version of that package that's more recent than the one you own -- or that your own office package can decrypt. Decrypt? Hell, yes: Microsoft's office file formats are marvels of weird obfuscation, needlessly over-designed around a combination "stream store" (that allows multiple sub-files to be nested within a single data storage abstraction, and allows frozen chunks of executable code, too). Odds are that your own office product -- especially if it's something amateurish and incomplete like Word Perfect, which doesn't even boast a talking paperclip -- can't actually run Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications macro scripts such as that funny "Love Bug" one that mails itself to all your friends and colleagues. Moreover, it is absolutely essential that everyone on the internet should be able to see the uncompressed huge watermark bitmaps in your letterhead, or that cute signature you scanned in the other day. Life would be so much better if we'd all just pay our dues and upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office, wouldn't it?

A retail Office XP license is a snip at only #449. Most people can get it even cheaper, for about #200 as part of a bundle. Sure we have to upgrade every eighteen months -- that's how often Microsoft roll all their bugfixes and patches together and burn a new set of master disks -- but it's a price worth paying, just for compatability with everybody else! If it wasn't worth doing, Microsoft wouldn't bother releasing these fun new products -- after all, there hasn't really been anything new in the wonderful world of word processing since Framemaker 4 came out in 1993. But just out of the goodness of their hearts, the guys at Redmond will give us the opportunity to shell out for about fifty to a hundred million new Office license fees every eighteen months. C'mon, you know it makes more sense than using those stupid half-baked toys like OpenOffice or KOffice! Which can't even open standard file formats -- standard within Microsoft -- defined to support new internet protocols (like .NET).

People who carp that Microsoft supports standards the way a noose supports a hanging man Just Don't Get It. By issuing their new updates and churning the file formats and protocols every eighteen months, Microsoft keeps hordes of developers frantically busy and makes a very nice couple of dozen billion greenbacks a year. Which has got to be good for the economy, hasn't it?

FACT 3: Microsoft invented the internet, so they should get to define how we use it.

Back in 1969, Microsoft paid genuises like Vinton Cerf and the guys at BBN to develop this revolutionary packet switched network for wiring up enterprises and providing the information superhighway. [ No, wait, wasn't BillG still in primary school back then? -- Ed. ] And it was thanks to Microsoft's pioneering efforts in the early 1970's -- back when everyone thought they were merely playing with BASIC interpreters -- that ARPANET switched from NCP to TCP/IP and began to expand. But Microsoft's internet strategy was very low-key and long term; in fact, so long term that it wasn't until 1994 that Bill Gates could be heard to admit that it existed at all, and even then in such self-deprecating terms that his predictions of a network called "Blackbird" and based on NetBEUI instead of TCP/IP made headlines. More headlines, at any rate, than Microsoft's theft of the TCP/IP stack from BSD UNIX in 1995, which they incorporated into Windows 95 in order to put the competing third-party Windows TCP stack vendors out of business. Sorry, what was that about the word "theft"? Oh, so BSD licensed software can be reused freely with no obligation on the user to admit that's what they're doing, other than tucked away in two point small print in the copyright declarations? Then that's okay, Microsoft didn't steal the BSD TCP/IP stack and they're not thieves. Of course, if Linux had acquired Microsoft's NetBEUI stack the way Microsoft acquired the BSD protocol stack they'd have had every lawyer in Washington state crawling all over them within nanoseconds. But that's neither here nor there. I take it all back: Microsoft are not thieves, and behave with total integrity and honesty at all times. Which is why they must be telling us the truth today when they say that Bill Gates is the father of the internet and invented the whole shebang. Right?

Actually, lest we forget, Microsoft Internet Explorer is the original graphical web browser. Way back in 1992-93, a couple of talented programmers wrote a program called Mosaic at the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Mosaic was the first graphical web browser, and NCSA licensed the source code to a whole bunch of companies. The dudes who wrote it left and set up a company called Netscape (which doesn't exist and didn't happen because if it had that might imply that at some time Microsoft nearly missed out on a whole market). The source code to Mosaic, meanwhile, was bought by a company called Spry. When Microsoft woke up and smelled the coffee they went to Spry and said, "hey guys, can we buy a license to re- sell Mosaic? We'll give you a royalty on every copy we sell." And of course, Microsoft paid Spry for every single copy of the re-named Microsoft Internet Explorer that they sold through the retail channel -- that is, none, because they gave it away for free instead. Such generous folks!

FACT 4: Microsoft's .NET is the future of the Internet

Microsoft looked at the wonderful world of e-commerce in 1999 and realised that if they did not support it properly, lots of struggling dot-coms would go bust. To help these poor struggling business plans, Microsoft invented the next generation of internet -- a perfect shopping mall that would allow vendors to rent out content (or sell physical goods) over the net. Or at any rate, that was the cover story; it's no coincidence that .NET surfaced at the same time as Judge Jackson's Findings of Fact in the anti-trust lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice. (Any judicial remedies for Microsoft's monopolistic habits would be directed against Microsoft's existing business, and by adopting a new business model Microsoft could make an end-run around the remedies.) But even this cynical and biased refusal to credit Microsoft with the ability to innovate its way out of a lawsuit doesn't get to the true roots of what .NET is about; for, just as Internet Explorer was a gun pointed at Netscape Corporation's main product. so too is .NET a loaded artillery piece zeroed in on Microsoft's biggest long-term threat -- Verisign, Inc.

Huh? Who the hell are Verisign and why are they a threat?

In the beginning of the internet e-commerce boom, people realised that consumers wouldn't buy goods online unless (a) they knew they were buying from a real commercial vendor's real website, and (b) they were using a secure connection. (Authentication and encryption, guys: the foundation-stones of security.) Anyway, to provide these facilities, Netscape coughed up an open standard called SSL -- secure socket layer -- to encrypt web transactions, and a related digital signature system to reliably enably users to identify a website. Each secure website needs a certificate -- a public encryption key digitally signed by a signing authority using their private key. A user who has the signing authority's public key can confirm that the signature is valid, and therefore knows that the website's public key can be used to conduct secure transactions with that website.

Guess who the certifying authority is, whose key is embedded in your web browser, and who guarantees that when you connect to Amazon.com via a secure web connection you are using Amazon's keys? Yes, it's VeriSign.

VeriSign control the keys to all secure business transactions on the web. This is a huge market -- if Microsoft owned it they could charge a commission on every transaction in the global economy. And this would be good for Innovation, oh yes indeed. Because all interactions between computer users are economic interactions (let's ignore those pesky free software people and pretend that software is a scarce commodity that can't easily be copied, so its transfer is an economic exchange), the Innovcation Corporation could charge users for doing anything. Saving a file in a foreign format, say. Or breathing.

Microsoft could use this authorisation service -- let's give it a handy name and brand identity like, say, Microsoft(R) Hailstorm(TM) -- and use it to let them sell new products, generating new markets. For example, you could pay for music every time you want to listen to it (instead of just the once). Or you could pay for your word processor on the installment plan (instead of borrowing a dodgy copy or using an old 1992 release of Word 6 because you don't need any of the new, speed-enhancing features).

As George Bernard Shaw commented, "every profession is a conspiracy against the laiety". Any company that buys into Hailstorm and .NET is conspiring with Microsoft to deprive the laiety -- you, me, the public -- of money and civil rights. The tradition in copyright law of "fair usage" rights, the idea of public libraries and public information, are fundamentally subversive of the centralised pay-per-use model that Microsoft wants to move us towards.

As for those pesky free software people, they have only two options. They can collaborate and be sucked in, or they can get in the way and be steamrollered. Ximian, who develop the GNOME desktop, are committed to developing a Linux-native version of the .NET application platform called Mono. Mono will still depend on Hailstorm for authentication -- leaving fundamental control in Microsoft's trustworthy hands -- so of course it will be allowed to proceed for as long as necessary; Mono's existence will achieve nothing except to provide Microsoft with a fig-leaf to hide their anti-competitive practices behind. ("See! We've got competition!") The whole _purpose_ of .NET is to transfer control over software and data to the supplier; this goal is fundmentally inimical to free software, which seeks to empower users.

But if we empower users all they'll do is play games, goof off at work, write viruses, take drugs, and generally behave like depraved hippie sex fiends. Users are fundamentally untrustworthy and need to be protected from themselves for their own good. Free software, flexible, open, and configurable, is like drugs: let 'em get a taste of it and they'll never do as they're told ("buy our products!") again.

Which is why Microsoft is trying to protect us from that evil, cancerous, virally-licensed Linux stuff by teaching consumers to Just Say No to freedom.

FACT 5: Linux is a virus

It's true, you know. I am a pod-person. Richard Stalman is a pod-person too. We are from another planet -- a planet where someone's labour is treated as a service, sold by the hourly rate; a world where you can't hoard up your labour and then copy it (at no extra cost to yourself) and sell each copy for a large amount of money. This weird idea -- that you can charge money for making zero-cost copies -- is inflationary: it defies economic logic, creates some notional value from nothing at all, and rather than contributing to genuine economic growth it just sucks in money from elsewhere. The commercial software industry is a bit like a pyramid scheme, with Microsoft at the apex (and you at the bottom, handing over your money in return for glamourous promises).

Linux is insidious because it is licensed under the GNU General Public License. In fact, all GPL'd software is insidiously subversive of the software industry; Linux is just an operating system kernel, one component of the free operating system commonly known as Linux but largely developed by Stalman's Free Software Foundation (who prefer to call it GNU/Linux -- a valiant but unfortunately lost cause).

The GPL is subversive for one reason; not only is a piece of GPL-licensed code free (as in free speech, not free beer), but any product derived from or containing that code is governed partially or completely by the GPL. This is evil, cancerous stuff: imagine if the Innovation Corporation had accidentally used the Linux TCP/IP stack in 1995 instead of the BSD one! Why, the source code to Windows 95 might have to be released under GPL!

Microsoft is aware of this hideous risk of legal contamination, which threatens to demolish the ecoomic cloud-castle their riches are built atop. Their responses are three-fold; to crush the enemy by main force (for example, by lobbying to have their model of intellectual property rights enshrined in law, making the GPL unusable), to render our computers unusablly useless without Microsoft software (by moving to controlled proprietary protocols), and to apply new licenses that ban the use of "software encumbered by viral licenses" on their own systems. And a very fine response this is; in this bright new century we have the finest legislators that money can buy, and it would be a crying shame if Mirosoft refrained from magnanimously giving them something useful and profitable to do.

So yes, it's true; free software is a virus. Users who get their hands on it will on average have an extra forty minutes a week in which to smoke crack, search the web for child pornography and Brasseye re-runs, make love (!war), and do anything else that enters their depraved, animalistic minds. What's worse, Microsoft will lose several hundred pounds a year in revenue that could be used for Innovation -- for example, by buying Steve Balmer another solid gold executive bathroom shitter -- instead of which, that money either goes on a holiday or school fees or, more likely, vanishes (because, like the rest of the commercial software pyramid scheme, it never existed in the first place).

Here in my left hand is a wallet containing five thousand pounds in used tenners. Here in my right hand is a cigarette lighter. Look! I'm going to set fire to the wallet! Watch that money burn! Look, the commercial software side of the economy is shrinking! If you stop believing in it it dies, like Tinkerbell. You bastards, you killed the fairy! Prepare to --

[ Editor's note: at this point the ambulance and police escort arrived and Mr Stross was escorted from the premises to a secure institution, where we are reassured that he poses no threat to anyone (including himself, and Bill Gates). We are keeping an eye on him using Microsoft's new BigBrother.NET webcam service (a bargain at only 5.99 a month!), and we will return him to this column as soon as he recovers enough to install Windows XP. Next month's Linux column will be presented by our temporary stand-in, Napoleon Bonaparte. ]


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