Archive for the 'Microsoft' Category

Even John thinks it’s wrong

John Gruber has become something of an Apple apologist over the last couple of years. His blog used to be pretty interesting, but it kind of morphed over the period of a year into a series of rants about basically how anyone who didn’t like Apple was deluded in one way or another.

A lot of us don’t like Apple’s approach under Steve Jobs. The products are uber shiny, but it’s just the same trap Gates cooked up for us 15 years ago, with a similar pitch. Back then Windows looked pretty good too, remember. It wasn’t brushed aluminium, but it had a whole 16 colours!

The deal is one that short sighted companies supplying almost anything will try and offer – lock-in. Lock-in is a well known issue in the IT industry, and in my day job it’s something we have to address with our customers in every pitch.

Lock-in describes a situation where a customer loses the ability to change supplier, because the supplier has a proprietary hold on them somehow. In my business the risk is generally that we deliver something nobody else can easily understand, but in other businesses it can be introduced in all sorts of ways.

I honestly believe lock-in is bad for both parties to a contract eventually. It is clearly bad for a customer to give up their control over their own property, and for a supplier it encourages lazy, inwardly-directed thinking that ultimately makes their products suck. c.f. Microsoft.

Apple are being creative in their approach to lock-in. Buy an iPod, and you can only really use it with iTunes. Install iTunes, and lo here’s a music store with DRMed music that you will never be able to move to another manufacturers player. Clunk, click, you’re locked-in. You shell out 500 quid on records from the Apple music store, and for the rest of your life you have no choice of music player – pick another supplier and you lose your entire music library.

That’s pretty much par for the course for a lot of companies these days – many of them feel that’s fair business tactics. Apple have gone further with the iPhone though. It’s not just your music that’s locked down, but any applications you can run. If you are happy with Apple becoming your own personal Sky Daddy then that’s fine. But the odd one of us weirdos thinks that maybe at some point in the far distant future we might actually want to be able to control our own property. Just in case, you know?

Apple have almost immediately shown their true colours with their control over the iPhone Appstore with their decision to remove a piece of software because it competes with their own products. And yes, even John thinks it’s wrong. Which shows just how bad it really is.

The nerve Apple have here is far beyond Microsoft’s wildest dreams. For all their unfair business practices and shoddy code, Microsoft have maintained a neutral platform on the whole. Sure they hid some APIs and agressively bought and then killed competitors, but Windows is a thriving ecosystem with real software on it. Just imagine if Microsoft plain denied WordPerfect because they’d decided to release MSWord. Dear me.

So please, dear reader, remember that whilst a benevolent dictatorship might seem very efficient it can turn sour very, very quickly. And if you really want to keep control over your own life, choose Free Software.

Is it a bird? Is it an OS? No it’s SuperBrowser!

Google’s new browser, Chrome, has been generating more column inches than I can believe. Outwardly, it’s a browser. “I think it is a web browser. I don’t think it is the first or the best browser,” says Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer (and he’s right). It’s difficult to see from the thing itself why it’s causing such a stir.

One reason it’s getting so much coverage is that many people think this is Google finally deciding to compete with Microsoft on shared turf. Here comes Google, like some big geeky gunslinger, ready to blow away the evil empire. Some of you may remember Gates himself predicting that the browser would defeat the OS. This is why Microsoft went on to destroy Netscape, and then slowly allow their own browser, IE, to decay so badly.

Seeing the end of Windows in this browser seems a little overblown given the product itself. It’s a pretty straightforward bit of work for the search giant, with nothing particularly revolutionary. The rendering engine is the same used for Safari and (on the whole) Konqueror. They’ve come up with a nice touch in the separate process for each tab and plugin – it’s a great idea, but it’s not revolutionary (Firefox on 64 bit linux does the same to get 32-bit plugins like Flash to run). They’ve written their own Javascript interpreter and JIT compiler, which is certainly not trivial, but again is hardly revolutionary.

Overall, compared to the squabillions Google have spent on search this racks up as another little project like gmail or google maps. It throws down the gauntlet to everyone else in the space, and shows how well you can do these days if you aren’t Microsoft – but as a product it’s no revolution.

So, why do people think this bit of software can destroy Windows? Partly it’s because the Microsoft hegemony is already dying all by itself. You don’t need to run Windows to use the Internet, and a lot of us work very successfully in heterogeneous networks now – some people on Macs, some on Linux, sometimes using mobiles and all sorts. This was completely unheard of 10 years ago – everyone had to run Windows, and it had to be closely managed by a dedicated IT team. It’s not uncommon now to see people in meetings using Eee PCs, and a lot of them still with Linux on them.

So, why the big deal over the browser? If it’s happening already, why does this new browser matter so much?

Truthfully, I don’t know. Firefox is an excellent product on Mac and Linux, although a lot of people claim it’s not so hot on Windows. I’m not a Windows user so I can’t say. For the average user, Chrome could be better than FF on Windows already. But then, if they just wanted a good browser, Google contribute a lot of developers to Mozilla, and could certainly have improved Firefox instead of developing Chrome.

I suspect for Google the minor outlay on developing a browser was worth it just to see what happened. They have shown before that they like to put the cat amongst the pigeons. They have said as much themselves – if their contribution forces IE8 to improve that will benefit Google more than it does anyone. The better people experience the web, the more pages they’ll see, and that’s more revenue for Google.

Also, there are people out there who will never use Firefox because it’s not backed by a big corporation. Many of us find that inexplicable, but I’m betting overall that Chrome will eat more of IE’s market share than it does Firefox’s. Again, that has to be a win for Google.

So, not an attempt to destroy Windows, just a low cost experiment in improving their ecosystem. Seen like that it makes a lot of sense. And if it gives them a lot of newspaper coverage and scares Microsoft – well, that’s nice too isn’t it.

The Microsoft / Yahoo Deal

Microsoft are going to buy Yahoo!. No way this isn’t going to happen now. Shareholders will love it and the only place where the combined company might trouble competition authorities is in webmail – which they don’t care about.

Microsoft have just bought one great big heap of trouble. Tens of thousands of FreeBSD boxes running PHP. They found digesting Hotmail famously hard. Yahoo is going to be way harder.

Microsoft’s motivation here has to be the growing, and obvious, realisation that they are incapable of competing with Google in their current form. Google are full of smart new ideas and they manage to pull enough of them off to be a truly innovative company.

Microsoft, OTOH, are culturally incapable of innovating. They haven’t ever invented anything new, and I don’t see that changing.

(A long digression. Clearly any sort of software development involves innovation somewhere. So when Microsoft copied VisiCalc to make Excel, yes there was some innovation. Same when they copied the PARC UI to make Windows.

In a January 2001 article, The business of software: the laws of software process, there’s a discussion of process in software, and where it works, and where it doesn’t.

The interesting bit of the article uses levels of ignorance to evaluate where process works – the more ignorant you are about a subject, the less process is applicable to it.

If you sort of take the reciprocal of this idea you get a structure for levels of innovation. The greatest innovation happens where you know nothing, where you have to invent the problem space itself, or perhaps even the basic terms of reference.

Google really grok this. Nobody out there was saying ‘hey, what I really need in my life is a zoomable, rotatable model of the Earth!’. Even less was someone suggesting they’d pay for it. Yet Google Earth is probably one of their most valuable properties in the long term (honest).

Now back to your regularly scheduled transmission).

Microsoft are good at taking requirements they understand from people in business they understand, and delivering pretty good applications. And then screwing them for every last penny they possibly can. They’re just a great big boring old software shop.

From Powerpoint to the DRM hydra that is Vista, they’ve got a clear picture in their head of the Dude in a Suit that they’re aiming at. Bully for them. However Microsoft Powerpoint does not the Interweb win.

From a Microsoft analysis (remember, the only people they really care about are Dudes in Suits – the rest of us are NPCs) what they need to beat Google is scale. If only they get enough eyeballs, some of them will be Dude in a Suit Eyeballs who might buy Microsoft Visio 2008 Dude in a Suit Edition. Yahoo gives them eyeballs, some of which indeed might be tricked into buying a Microsoft product, perhaps whilst drunk or distracted or operating heavy machinery or something.

They certainly don’t give two hoots about some of the really spiffing technology Yahoo have. It would be insane to try and move all of Yahoo onto a Windows platform, but I think that’s just what they’ll do. It’s like the biggest case of cognitive dissonance ever. “We bought Yahoo because they were better than us and we really needed them… but our software is better! hell yeah!”

Where they’ve got a parallel product they’ll port the data and the users to their own product (i.e. Hotmail) and shut down the Yahoo offering (Yahoo! Mail) – even when the Yahoo offering (Yahoo! Mail) is the best available anywhere.

Like John Gruber says, the weird boutique items (Flickr) will be sold off or spun off. Not enough Dudes in Suits use Flickr, and the opportunity for selling them Office upgrades is limited. They are mostly filthy mac users anyway.

I have to think this is going to be a slow train crash, punctuated by the screams of loyal Yahoo users as they flee. If I were a Yahoo shareholder I’d take the cash and put it straight into Google.

The best quote I’ve seen (via Daring Fireball) is from Andy Baio: It’s like tying the Titanic to the iceberg. It’d keep you from sinking just long enough to freeze to death.

Floating Microsoft’s Balloon

I had to get this off my chest.

Over at alistapart there is a post about a new proposal for getting around the complete failure of the IE dev team to produce anything other than dogfood. In summary it pushes the burden of future IE compatibility onto us web developers, rather than onto the IE dev team, who are the people who can actually fix it.

I work at a software development shop. We build a varied lot of software, but pretty much all of it has a web interface somewhere.

When those web interfaces go beyond helloworld we end up paying the IE Tax, just like all the other web developers out there. We develop for proper browsers, then we have to make a succession of tactical changes to try and make IE work with what we’ve developed. I think it adds something like 5-10% to the cost of everything we do.

Multiply that across all the developers in the world and it’s quite a lot of money – more than enough to pay for a really big scaffold from which to suspend the IE developers by their necks until dead. Amen.

But enough about my fantasies. Supporting the failings in IE is a painful issue for everyone in this business, and there are two real answers.

  1. Everyone stops using IE. There’s no real need for anyone to use it after all. This is the dream solution.
  2. IE8 actually conforms to standards. You’d think this would be trivial these days – all the code to do this is Open Source, they could just incorporate the Gecko or Webkit engines and be done with it. Cheap and easy. If they want to be all proprietorial about it they could even hire a few developers from somewhere and build their own that actually works.

But Nay! Nay, nay and thrice: nay! For the problem it seems is that lots of web developers are dumb as rocks, and built broken websites that work in IE6 and 7 – and they will be incapable of fixing their broken websites!

This really is a prize excuse for Microsoft not fixing their own mess, and it comes from the Web Standards Project themselves:

Now sure, you could just shrug it off and say that since IE6’s inaccuracies were well-documented, these developers should have known better, but you would be ignoring the fact that many developers never explicitly opted into “standards mode,” or even knew that such a mode existed.

Diddums. Poor ickle developers. I can tell there is a tear of pity rolling down your cheek at this moment.

This is such a feeble excuse I am left panting in amazement. Because a load of historical web developers may have been dumb – and I’m happy to accept this is possible, although I’ve seen no analysis – the entire future of web development has to conform to this lame ass suggestion? EPIC FAIL.

In reality, this is just a feeble excuse to stop Microsoft from having to admit to all their users what the rest of us know. They suck. If they release IE8 and it actually works it’ll break a load of websites. Then they’ll have to own up finally to how bad IE6 and 7 really are. They are temperamentally incapable of any such thing – any discussion of IE6 differences has to be couched in doublespeak. Scientology levels of brainwashing are required to keep the typical Microsoft employee in line. Admission of mistakes is NOT an option!

If this was just typical Microsoft lameness it would hardly rate a blog post, but they have managed to get the Web Standards Project to float this particular balloon for them. Which says a lot for their PR nous at least, but not much for the author of the piece — who even now is probably trying to get onto an FBI witness protection programme to escape the web developer lynch mob currently collecting in his comment stream.

Microsoft is dead

Paul Graham, a man who is generally right.

Is this really the end of music DRM?

[Microsoft dropping DRM from Zune Music Store]( Microsoft have seen the writing on the wall for music DRM much faster than expected, and are [following Apple]( into providing music files without DRM restrictions.

This probably really is the end for music DRM, something that is in the best interests of most music lovers and artists. The revolution that’s finally going to happen in music is going to change the shape of it, and is certainly going to make [some forms of music]( uneconomic, but it will also make other forms feasible that once were not. It’s a whole new world out there and if I was an unsigned artist I would be very excited about the possibilities.

What this isn’t is the death of DRM. The impulse that made the music industry commit [such]( [public]( [hara-kiri]( wasn’t irrational, it was just very poorly judged against their market. In video and television I think we can expect the same behaviour, but with a lot more ferocity. The vast investments in the business models, not least the business models of their suppliers (think Windows Vista), will mean DRM hangs around for some while yet.

Transient content will probably always be advertising supported, since it’s easy and gives access to the most eyeballs. There’s a whole new arms race in there for advertising avoidance software, so the advertising will probably end up pretty subtle. It’ll be just as offensive as TV is now — but hey, go read a book or something.

The DVD market is the one that’s really going to hurt a lot of people. This stuff is being traded big-time on the P2P networks now, and it has become a vital market for a lot of media companies. A lot of series would not be produced without the DVD aftermarket, and the economics of video are, for the moment, different from a lot of music. It will be a few decades before you can make *The West Wing*, from scratch, on your own, in your bedroom, using only a computer. If there isn’t a business model that can support large scale drama with high production values, that would be a real shame.

Video is far less accessible on the move than music too, so being restricted to play your DVDs only on your home player is less of a restriction. I can see a lot of technological battles coming up to try to lock down every single digital and analogue hole in video reproduction. The recent [AACS Crack]( is only the beginning. Expect a few attempts, some successful, to change the law too.

HTML email

For the love of God, [don’t use HTML email](

Schneier tells it like it is

[Here is Bruce Schneier’s take]( on Vista’s DRM features. He may be right that the law will need to get involved — whether that is going to happen or not though I’m not sure.

Love the Linux weenies

The scene: a gaol, somewhere in the mid-west. With apologies to Jim Dodge.

> I’m standing in a cell, when the cell block door opens and the Sergeant, fat, red and sweating enters dragging a screaming Microsoft user. He hauls him to the end of the line of cells and throws him into it. The Microsoft user’s name is Joe. The Sergeant’s name is Bill.

> Joe screams “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!” I hear the Sergeant kick him in the stomach. The Sergeant walks out, locking the cell behind him. He leaves the cell block.

> Silence. The other prisoners are quiet too, listening. We can hear Joe sobbing.

> Ten minutes later, Joe takes a huge breath and we hear him scream again “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”. This repeats once every ten minutes or so. “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”.

> After a few hours of this, the cell block door opens. The Sergeant walks in, tapping his blackjack on his thigh. He walks to Joe’s cell, and opens the door. We hear the sudden thud of the blackjack striking Joe’s head, and he hits the floor with a thump.

> “Too much noise. I’ll give you something to block up that mouth of yours, kid” says the Sergeant.

> “On your knees”.

> There’s another thump as he strikes Joe again.

> “That’s right, good. Now you know what to do.”

> We hear a moan and a gag from Joe. Everyone else in the block is silent, as we hear the panting of the Sergeant. Then, with a crescendo, it stops. Joe gags and pukes.

> “You better remember that, kid.”

> The sergeant slowly leaves the block, looking even more florid than before. We hear Joe gag and puke.

That’s what it’s like to be a Linux user right now, seeing all the rest of you being abused by your software vendors.

I see Microsoft, Apple and other users of big corporate manufacturers being slowly imprisoned by their own software. As more and more [DRM](ttp:// is added to the things we own, the less freedom we have from it.

This post isn’t about the dangers of DRM, or indeed why it’s so harmful. That much is obvious. This is a gaze into the crystal ball to see where this might go.

Microsoft are attempting perhaps the largest land grab in the history of entertainment and communication. What has happened so far with record sales is *nothing* compared to the prize of Internet Television (IPTV). That big box in the corner of your room is not long for this world in it’s current form. Microsoft want everyone to have a Microsoft television, running Microsoft Windows, and taking content mediated and managed by Microsoft.

To become both the monopoly supplier of IPTV and the [monopsony]( buyer of content from the TV and film companies, Microsoft need to conduct a major land grab right *now* to get their platform and their standards accepted. Selling it to their users is difficult, since there is no benefit to them. Selling it to the film and tv companies is easier, since right now it costs them little and has some significant temptations to them.

This answers the conundrum I posed [the other week]( — why are Microsoft building such horrendous DRM into Vista? If they can get the content suppliers on side now, they have a real possibility of tying up the platform. But I don’t think they’ll succeed, and in the process they may ruin their business. And the reason they’ll fail is because of Linux.

Vista is going to be a nightmare when it rolls out, but right now Microsoft couldn’t give two hoots. It’s going to be slow unstable crap, because of all this DRM, but right now as far as they are concerned their users have *no choices*.

It would seem in fact as if Microsoft have this all sewn up. If they can provide a viable platform for IPTV that limits users right sufficiently that content producers can maximise their profits, what could stop them? After all, if you want your content, where else are you going to go?

RIght now, the answer would be the various P2P networks. They are cheap and easy, and you can get pretty much anything. These aren’t going to work for Vista users though, oh no. Anything with DRM will be unplayable on Vista, even if you can download it from these sites. So, you have to suck your content from the Microsoft pipe, or nothing.

Apple would be viable competition, but they are going down exactly the same road. They are basically happy with their computer market share, and Microsoft are willing to cede this to them. If Apple lost much more market share, in fact, Microsoft would probably once again fund them, just to make sure they weren’t legally a monopoly. Some weak competition is very valuable to them. I’d be willing to bet that Apple buy into the same DRM strategy as Microsoft, especially if Microsoft find it in their hearts to fund the development.

So, all you Windows users, if you want to play a movie without paying a fee for every view, or a fee for time shifting, or without the 5 minute rant about copyright theft at the beginning, what do you do? You run Linux, that’s what you do. You will shortly have no choice and this, I suspect, is going to be the greatest encouragement to the growth of Linux ever.

I can see some corporates buying this argument too. Vista is going to be buggy as hell, and I reckon it’ll take much longer to become stable than 2000 or XP needed. When corporate networks start failing, this might provide the final urge to a lot of companies to move to Linux on the desktop. The product is very nearly there now, and with a tech support team to roll it out, a Linux corporate desktop is a real option now.

The availability of the Linux desktop *on it’s own* is enough to cripple Microsoft’s strategy. If enough people run a Linux desktop, or soon a Linux TV, it defeats Microsoft’s strategy. As Firefox has shown, you don’t need a major market share to be a disruptive influence. Just 20% of people using non Microsoft/Apple software should be enough to stop the monopoly/monopsony strategy.

And where there is competition their lock-in strategy fails. In ten years when you are still running Windows, and you’ve got your Microsoft-powered TV, but your content isn’t priced per minute, or person watching, or whatever, then be thankful for those Linux users who kept the market open.

Vista DRM

The long gestation of Microsoft Windows Vista has in some way taken attention away from what is probably the most important feature of the software — the integration of [DRM]( deep into every component of the Operating System.

Techworld have [an article]( describing some of the effects. None of this is news really, these features are in many ways the raison d’être of the Vista project.

Basically, Microsoft have taken DRM to it’s logical conclusion. Right now, DRM is only able to restrict content in very specialised circumstances. Let’s take iTunes as an example (since the Zune doesn’t work with Vista). Apple get a copy of, lets say, … Baby One More Time by Britney Spears. Clearly access to this work needs to be restricted as much as possible, for the good of humanity.

Apple take this masterpiece and encrypt it. The file they transmit to end users is unplayable as-is, because of the encryption, preserving the unwitting purchaser from hearing the dulcit tones of Miss Spears. This is why they call it “protection”. Now, if the purchaser wishes to listen to this record, they must play it using the iTunes player. This sees the encryption, and asks Apple for the key to play the record. Apple’s servers check that the user has indeed purchased the record and, if they have, provide the key. The iTunes player then decrypts the record and plays it.

And right now this is as far as technology can go with protecting the user from Miss Spears. During playback the computer has access to the unencrypted content, and with properly crafted drivers the content could be duplicated in it’s unprotected state. Similarly many computers have an S/PDIF socket which lets you send digital music from your computer to a digital amplifier, allowing much higher quality music reproduction — and also record it.

Apple can’t stop you doing this — their software can just hand off the music, bit by bit, for the OS to play. This is the “Digital Hole”.

But no longer! Now, with Vista the encryption can extend all the way to the speakers (well, nearly). iTunes can inform Vista that the content is dangerous, and that releasing it on an unsuspecting consumer could damage them (as in the case of the lovely Miss Spears). In this case, Vista will refuse to allow the unencrypted content to be played on unsafe devices. This means the content must be re-encrypted before being sent to a sound card. The sound card then unencrypts the music before playing it. If your sound card doesn’t do this, then you can’t use it.

Your S/PDIF interface will be disabled when playing restricted content. Every way you can imagine for getting at the actual raw music has been removed or massively reduced in quality when you are playing this sort of content.

This is a really seriously challenging exercise in computing. If you can imagine the number of lines of code, and the complex cooperation between vendor components that’s needed to orchestrate this sort of behaviour, this is going to introduce a slew of bugs, complexities and incompatibilities. It also uses quite a lot of system resources, in all the extra crypto work and in monitoring devices to make sure they aren’t doing what they oughtn’t.

The cost of implementing all of this, by Microsoft originally, by all the vendors who need to cooperate to make it work and to the user in the extra oomph they need to purchase and the time spent rebooting broken computers is immense. Over the lifetime of Vista, with the billions of possible users, this could easily add a few trillion dollars of extra expense. Well worth every penny to protect the innocent public from unadulterated exposure to the lovely Miss Spears I am sure you will agree.

But say, for example, the user chose to listen to something less incendiary. Who precisely benefits from this quite significant economic cost? A cost born entirely by the purchaser of this shiny new Operating System. One person we can conclude confidently that it does not benefit is the very person who buys Vista — all the software does is let them play some music they could play before.

Does it benefit Microsoft? You’d assume so, for the huge amounts they’ve spent on it. I can imagine a world where all media owners required this sort of technology and only Vista offers these features. In this hypothetical world, Vista would have a massive advantage. Who is going to buy an iBook when they can’t even listen to “… One More Time”?

In the music industry it’s becoming pretty clear that the world is not like this. If Vista had existed ten years ago, then this would be plausible. The industry has faced it’s demons now though, and is slowly coming to accept a world where their product can be easily duplicated. They are finding other business models. They make a lot of money out of iTunes as it is, and are not going to cut off Apple when Vista is released.

Other industries, such as the (probably most massive of everything, ever) burgeoning Internet television business are going to have to come to their own conclusions about DRM — but I’d be willing to bet quite a bit that in the final analysis they’ll settle for the vast oodles of cash they’ll make without DRM as it is. Making it more difficult for your customer to buy or use your product is bad for business. c.f. [YouTube](

So if Microsoft won’t sell more copies of Vista, then why have they gone to all this effort? I bet if you ask Bill Gates, even he won’t know. Certainly he seems to have [gone off DRM]( (his legal advice is very suspect incidentally).

Personally I reckon this is a case of an organisation gone mad — something that isn’t uncommon in large organisations with a lot of management. Some senior bod has decreed that DRM is “good”, and the organisation has swung ponderously into motion. Vast teams of architects and engineers spend years crafting a solution, none of them willing, able or interested in asking whether their efforts are worthwhile. By the time the effort has been expended and the product completed, who is going to ask it if it was worthwhile? Is there anyone with the cojones to pull the features?

Mr Gates was always the one with the cojones — and he certainly had them. He understood at a fundamental level that you can’t allow this sort of thing to drift — business strategies take on a life of their own, and that vitality is enough to defeat lesser men. I think those in charge at Microsoft now are all lesser men, and that these features, and others driven by the same attitude, will eventually be their downfall.

Update 15/1/2007: some [real detail]( from Peter Gutmann, who has done some research on this.