Chad Perrin: SOB

15 September 2006

what Microsoft has been up to these days

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — apotheon @ 07:54

Some of you have no doubt already seen the two-part Hasta la Vista series over at The Beez’ Speaks. As I mentioned to Sterling when I pointed him at the URL a few days ago, my jaw literally dropped and hung open for a little bit before I noticed while I was reading the bit about Sim City.

As of today, Sterling has reported on A Kodak moment, as he calls it, where he encounters an all-too-common problem with third-party Windows-based software: one must be logged in with administrator privileges to use it as designed. He laments the fact that this sort of common behavior is a pretty good indication that almost everybody (99% he says — I think more like 98%, if only because of the 98% Rule) must be running their home computers with only one available user account, which has administrative privileges. It’s a reinforcing cycle, of course: because so much software requires administrative privileges, people just sign in with an administrative user account, and because everybody does so, software gets designed to require administrative privileges even when that’s not strictly necessary. On the other hand, much of what the average user does actually does require administrative access.

This is all tied into the origins of Windows in DOS, a true single-user OS, and the fact that Microsoft still hasn’t done a credible job of separating Windows from that legacy to make it a true multi-user OS (if It had, we wouldn’t be having some of these problems).

Of course, aside from technical issues, there’s that history of [Holy crap, that soup is hot! Ahem, sorry, back to your regularly scheduled blaming-Microsoft commentary.] market dominance business practices. Microsoft is known widely for monopolistic practices, driving competitors out of business and designing software to lock customers into vertically integrated solutions so that the company can compel customers to give it as much money as possible. In the past, Microsoft has been guilty of a number of “crimes” in that vein, including using software patents to “protect” itself from fair competition. In contrast with its by now expected behavior, however, Microsoft is signing nonassertion covenants, wherein it promises it will not sue for patent infringement with regard to specific patents. Microsoft calls its latest concession to the market share growth of open source software the Open Specification Promise.

Simon Phipps has some reservations about the OSP, which he describes in Security Blankets. Quoted directly from there, the three points of concern he raises are:

  1. First is the phrase “necessary claims”. Whenever I see this phrase my lawyer alarm goes off as it immediately involves a judgement call which is the subjective right of the patent holder. It comes accompanied by the question “was our patent really necessary for this implementation? Surely you could have done it this other way and thus not needed it. It’s actually not necessary so here’s the invoice.” I’d like to see that phrase replaced with language to indicate that no patent claims will be made against source code implementing the standard, with no necessity test involved.
  2. Second, the phrase “to the extent it conforms” is worrisome. Just as with the earlier language around Office 12 XML, it leaves open the question of who is the arbiter of conformance. It also means that open source is placed under a FUD cloud; development is carried out in public so partial and non-conforming implementations are sure to exist. I’d like to see this replaced with language to indicate that the good-faith intent to implement the standard is sufficient to gain coverage.
  3. Third (and most complex to explain) is the asymmetry of the patent peace. The patent grant is limited to necessary claims as I mentioned in 1 above, yet the cancellation of that grant is triggered:
    If you file, maintain or voluntarily participate in a patent infringement lawsuit against a Microsoft implementation of such Covered Specification, then this personal promise does not apply with respect to any Covered Implementation of the same Covered Specification made or used by you.
    That means that while Microsoft only grants me “necessary claims” I have to effectively grant them cover on all claims, necessary or not. That asymmetry has to be corrected.

A more in-depth analysis of Microsoft’s OSP is available thanks to Andy Updegrove. It’s a bit lengthy, but worth the read when you have the time if the subject matter is of any interest to you.

All in all, the OSP looks to be a welcome turn of events, as an example of Microsoft doing something right for once (in the ethical as well as connotatively “correct” sense). Then, of course, any positive ground gained is mitigated by some more in-character act of Microsoft’s. In this case, Microsoft is trying to pull a bait-and-switch with educational standards. From Changing the Report, After the Vote, an article at Inside Higher Ed, we discover the details.

Except for David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, every member of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education found enough to endorse in the draft the panel produced last month to support it over all. All of them, certainly, also found some aspects of the report objectionable, yet swallowed those objections and agreed, at a public meeting August 10, to sign the report. The panel’s members agreed at the time that the report would undergo only minor copy editing and “wordsmithing” between then and when it was formally presented to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings later this month. That agreement was nearly imperiled last weekend, though. Gerri Elliott, corporate vice president at Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector division, sent an e-mail message to fellow commissioners Friday evening saying that she “vigorously” objected to a paragraph in which the panel embraced and encouraged the development of open source software and open content projects in higher education.

Notably from the other side of the debate, again from the Inside Higher Ed article, comes the following:

As is his wont, Richard Vedder, an outspoken economics professor at Ohio University, weighed in with all of his typing fingers blazing mid-day Saturday. Not only was the original version appropriate, Vedder said (open content “is a promising new trend in higher education that needs our explicit support,” he wrote), but more importantly, “I think it is outrageous to try to change the text of a document weeks after members have been asked to read it, and long after we have met and voted to sign it.” Vedder said he thought it might even be illegal to “change a report that has been voted on in a public meeting and to which people have already signed.” Then he added: “I must say, and I am sorry if I offend Gerri, that many very important persons on this commission found the time to read the report when asked by the chair. Their corporate responsibilities, while great, were not so great that they neglected their responsibilities to the commission…. Perhaps Microsoft considered this a low priority part of Gerri’s work — if so she should not have accepted this assignment, or, if she did, she should accept the consequences of her failure to perform her duties as all other members of the commission have.”

The final edit of the paragraph in contention now reads like most outcome of decisions by committee — it says a whole lot of nothing:

The commission encourages the creation of incentives to promote the development of information-technology-based collaborative tools and capabilities at universities and colleges across the United States, enabling access, interaction, and sharing of educational materials from a variety of institutions, disciplines, and educational perspectives. Both commercial development and new collaborative paradigms such as open source, open content, and open learning will be important in building the next generation learning environments for the knowledge economy.

Yes, they probably will all be important. What the hell does that have to do with setting actual policy? It’s just a prediction.


  1. This is all tied into the origins of Windows in DOS, a true single-user OS, and the fact that Microsoft still hasn’t done a credible job of separating Windows from that legacy to make it a true multi-user OS (if It had, we wouldn’t be having some of these problems).

    This is not entirely true. Windows 2000, XP, et al come from the NT codebase, not the DOS code base (shared ground with OS/2). The problem was Microsoft’s commitment to backwards compatability and ease of software development. Microsoft knew they could not sell a copy of NT/2000/XP without backwards compatability. Too many software developers on Microsoft platform were used to have carte blanche access, so to smooth their path, Microsoft made that the default. In retrospect, it was a really, REALLY bad decision. But at the time, it made sense. Remember, when they made these choices, most consumer grade computers were not connected to a network or the Internet, they truly were single user machines. Viruses, Internet works, drive by Web installs, etc. simply did not exist. As *Nix shows, high security directly relates to difficulty in use. The average computer user is incapable of using a highly secured OS For example, I spent hours trying to get NetMeeting on a laptop that a customer provided to me for use on their VPN to allow desktop sharing, to communicate with one of their people. The problem was that my account was restricted from making registry changes. While I applaud their devotion to security, the computer is pretty useless on a lot of levels to me, because of the security restrictions. While I fall in the extremely small group of people known as “Windows users who never once got infected with a virus or spyware,” it is hard to convince the customer to grant me access to do what I need to do. Without sacrificing security for things like security and backwards compatability, Windows’ market share would be a lot lower (in favor of something else, and NOT *Nix) than it is today. Microsoft’s cheif responsibility is to their shareholders (that is a legal obligation, known as “fiduciary responsibility”), not their customers. As such, they have a legal obligation to increase market share, revenue, and sales, not to do the best thing for the customer. It sucks, but that’s the capitalist system.


    Comment by Justin James — 16 September 2006 @ 07:17

    1. That backwards compatibility targeted DOS applications. Thus, the DOS legacy lives on.
    2. Emulation was an alternative to integrated backward compatibility that Microsoft disregarded as an option. Their fault, not mine.
    3. “most consumer grade computers were not connected to a network or the Internet, they truly were single user machines.” That’s exactly my point — there’s an unbroken line of single-user legacy limitation on the development of the OS.
    4. “As *Nix shows, high security directly relates to difficulty in use.” Nonsense. I, personally, find free unices easier to use than Windows in most cases. What it shows is that perceived ease of use depends, to a nontrivial degree, on familiarity.
    5. The problems to which you refer in Windows are mostly related to the half-baked security measures being crammed sideways into a system architecture that has grown from an original single-user design.
    6. The fact that fiduciary responsibility prevents Microsoft from producing good software (and it doesn’t, really, it just makes it more work) in no way makes the software any better. It’s also a problem that is entirely dependent on Microsoft’s business model. Furthermore, no OS vendor should reasonably have the sort of market niche dominance enjoyed by Microsoft, so I’m afraid I feel exactly zero sympathy for the corporation that has raped and pillaged its way to such prominence.
    7. “It sucks, but that’s the capitalist system.” Bollocks. It’s not capitalism that produces this. It’s corporatism. It is entirely possible (and, in fact, preferable) to have a capitalist system that does not consistently reward unethical business practices like Microsoft’s.

    Comment by apotheon — 16 September 2006 @ 03:55

  2. Wow, that bit about Sim City in the Hasta La Vista article caused about the same reaction in me that you had. In some ways I can’t believe a company would do something as backwards as that, but I suppose it just goes to show that they aren’t aiming for quality in their products.

    Comment by medullaoblongata — 16 September 2006 @ 05:27

  3. […] SOB: Scion Of Backronymics » what Microsoft has been up to these days apotheon expands my lament over ubiquitous admin privileges on Windows workstations into a discussion of Microsoft philosophy in general, with specific examination of the new Open Specification Promise. (tags: microsoft windows ip openness linklove) […]

    Pingback by links for 2006-09-17 -- Chip’s Quips — 16 September 2006 @ 07:18

  4. Here’s another observation on the OSP.

    Microsoft has lost a significant battle to Java, to all the applications that are OS agnostic. To undermine that, they had to create an alternative platform (starting with a dot, ending in a T).

    Two different runtime platforms means no code portability. You can’t take your J2EE code and run it inside .Net.

    So let’s change the discussion around from portability to interoperability.

    WS-* is their way to regain market share.

    I doubt they’ll sue any open source implementation when interoperability plays to their advantage.

    New Microsoft, or just a different take on embrace and extend?

    Comment by assaf — 16 September 2006 @ 09:00

  5. Don’t forget the third component of that strategy — Extinguish.

    Comment by apotheon — 17 September 2006 @ 05:48

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License