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Microsoft Revisited

If you are a frequent reader of my columns, you are probably aware of the following, although you might also need to have read my articles posted on FoDOweb.com:

This column will expand on and refine some of these points, particularly for those of you who have not read me often.

First of all, I don't hate Microsoft. I don't hate Bill Gates, and I certainly don't wish him any ill. I recently read something that indicates that Bill truly is something of a computer nerd or hacker (in the positive sense) and not just a shrewd businessman. But urban legend or not, I also truly believe that Bill owes his personal fortune and Microsoft's success far more to plain dumb good luck and good timing than to any programming talents he may have. Certainly Microsoft has taken advantage of every opportunity that has come its way to increase its market share and profits. While that's the "American way", Microsoft has never been forced to play on "an even field". From that fateful day in 1980(?) when IBM chose Microsoft to provide the OS for its new personal computers to the present, Microsoft has always had an advantage over any competitors. For much of that time, it's been an unfair advantage.

To the best of my knowledge, there are three or four serious competitive operating systems available for small to medium-sized computers: Windows, The Apple Macintosh, Linux and various flavors of Unix. The Macintosh, unfortunately, is a closed system. To use the operating system, you need Apple's hardware and vice versa. And, truth be told, if Apple were the dominant player in personal computers, this column would likely be about them. Linux is a promising alternative to Windows, but, like the Macintosh, it tends to have "niche" markets: for servers and hackers (positive connotation). Unix is for the "big boys", whatever that means. The majority of us are stuck with Windows. We've simply got too much invested in hardware, software, and computing knowledge and experience to make switching a viable option. Slowly, more of us are thinking about and possibly moving to Linux and this trend may increase as Linux matures and its fame spreads.

Personally, I've considered giving Linux a real trial. I tried to install it once, but ran into difficulties and gave up. I don't really have a suitable machine at the moment, but when I do, I may try again. There are, however, a couple of reasons why I will probably never completely give up on Windows: ASP (Active server pages) and Visual Basic. These two, along with Internet Explorer I believe to be Microsoft's great gifts to computing. I don't know if there is anything on the Macintosh to compare to Visual Basic and I know of no other scripting language (if that's an acceptable term for ASP) that's as easy or powerful to use as ASP with VBscript. The biggest regret I have is that Netscape has not had the good sense to make its browser compatible with VBscript. If this paragraph lost you, don't worry, I'll try not to get so technical again.

Microsoft has been playing with Windows for over fifteen years. Granted, at first the Intel-based computers were not powerful enough to support the graphic user interface (GUI) the way that the Motorola-based Apple, Atari and Commodore machines could. But Windows has been a viable interface for more than ten years. And yet, Microsoft just can't seem to get it right. With the introduction of Windows 2000 and then Windows XP it looked as if Microsoft had finally achieved a quick, reliable operating system - and then they went and changed the GUI - fixing the one thing about Windows that didn't need fixing. In the process, they also removed some of the "power" features from the "home" edition - but didn't bother to tell anyone. If you have any plans to develop your own web sites, don't buy the "home" version of Windows XP. If you can, buy Windows 2000 or stick with Windows 98SE. (Windows XP Professional will do, but then you're stuck with their awful new GUI.) If you don't prize your screen real estate, you may like the new GUI, but I don't. You may find it easier to use, but I don't. You may like its new features, but I miss the features that were "watered down" or simply left out.

Microsoft products are expensive. Okay, almost all software is expensive, so it really isn't surprising that piracy is so rampant. But Microsoft could do something about it. Microsoft doesn't just sell a few hundred copies of a title, it sells millions of copies (at least of its "flag ship" products such as Windows and Office). But just imagine how many millions more it would sell if the price were more reasonable. Actually, I don't entirely object to the cost of "original" software. But I strongly object to the high costs of upgrades. I have purchased one or more copies of every upgrade of Windows since I bought my first Intel-based computer in 1993, except for the "NT" versions. Every one of them, except Windows 95, I bought almost exclusively in the vain hope that the new version would prove more reliable than the last. And every one of them (except a Windows 98 Special Edition update which cost a mere $20US) has cost me around $100. That's far too much to pay just to hopefully get a few bugs corrected. And Microsoft expects me to fork over the same amount for every computer in my household. (Okay, I can get a multiple licence for 10% off - but that's a mere pittance.)

Currently, we have three valid licenses for Windows XP - two "Home" versions and one "Professional". Only the "Professional" version is actually installed on a computer. I bought a "Home" upgrade not knowing that it wouldn't support a personal web server - a vital tool for any web master. I had to replace it with the "Professional" version. My son had to buy a new computer and it came with XP. Unfortunately, he plays a lot of older DOS-based games, so he had to replace XP with 98. The two other computers in regular use in our home aren't fast enough and/or don't have enough drive space to support XP. (They're also used for production of my web pages, so the "Home" version would be unacceptable anyway.) To add insult to injury, Microsoft's Visual Studio.NET, of which Visual Basic is a part, requires XP Professional to be fully utilized. Consequently, Visual Basic is installed on a computer I seldom get to use because it is shared with three other members of my family. I probably have both the "Home" and "Professional" versions registered for the same computer. I shudder to think what hoops I would have to go through if I wanted to install(and register) the "Home" version on a different machine.

Piracy is a serious issue that affects all forms of "intellectual property". Admittedly, there seems to be a notion still prevalent among too large a part of the population, that anything that was not created through back-breaking physical labor isn't really very valuable. As a creator of "Intellectual Property", I'm very concerned about protecting my rights and my creations. I'm not sure how to combat piracy, but I have a few suggestions:

Microsoft developed the look and feel of Windows - and it's a pretty intuitive. So why is it every new Microsoft product seems to be so ... unintuitive? I don't know, but that's how it seems to me.

And finally, I've been known to knock Microsoft pretty hard. I do it because I feel they should be doing a better job; I do it because they're big boys and they can take it; and I do it just for the heck of it. I mean no harm. And I certainly try not to say anything that doesn't have at least some supporting evidence. Anyway, it seemed I was mentioning Microsoft so much that I ought to get paid by them just to mention their name. And that's when I started working Microsoft's name into as many columns as I could (and could remember to). Unfortunately, Microsoft has not taken the bait. I haven't received a cent from them. As I said, I've got nothing against Microsoft. If I could afford it, I'd buy their stock. I just wish they'd give their customers more value.

And so we come to the end of yet another column about Microsoft. Hopefully, the rest of 2003 will be Microsoft free. (Wow! That's frightening - Microsoft and "free" in the same sentence!)

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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