Attention higher education students: Microsoft’s “steal”

Microsoft is offering a deal to students under which they can get a full license of MS Office 2007 for 39 quid. There’s a catch: If you are unable to provide proof of enrollment, you will be required to pay the full retail price of Office Ultimate 2007 (approximate ERP £599.99). Well, they did call it The Ultimate Steal after all. A better move on their part would have been to test your eligibility before they offer you a deal, so I can only assume that they’re deliberately trying to catch you out. In conclusion, if you’re thinking about taking up this offer, think very, very hard about whether you’ve really eligible. Otherwise you might find yourself over half a grand in debt.

CEOs this week: who can lie the best?

This week saw a cornucopia of disinformation from the big software companies. We started out with Steve Ballmer of Microsoft claiming that Linux violated 235 patents held by Microsoft. People soon pointed out that the same argument had been used in 2004, and that the original author of the study originating the claim had concluded that it did not pose any great threat of litigation. Finally, one commenter surmised that the reason Microsoft had revived the abandoned initiative now was because it wished to disrupt the Red Hat Summit and the Open Source Business Conference, and force Red Hat to sign an agreement similar to Novell’s. However, it all came to nothing when Eben Moglen pointed out that the GPLv3 contained terms (“the patent license you grant is automatically extended to all recipients of the covered work and works based on it”) that could be used to indemnify all Linux users when the GPLv3 comes into force. Since the vouchers that Novell is now handing out to its Linux customers, intended to indemnify them against patent litigation and covered by an appropriate agreement with Microsoft, have no expiration date, Linux is likely to soon be free of all patent violation problems. The vouchers can be handed in after GPLv3 is used across large parts of Novell’s Linux distro, and so can entirely absolve Linux of any existing violations of patents – although new code could bring new vulnerability! Nonetheless I heartily congratulate the people who are queueing up to get that little bit of fame, and be the first to get sued by Microsoft. Thanks for bringing the humour back, guys!

Soon after the news broke of Microsoft’s patent litigation threat, Jonathan Schwartz of Sun wrote a blog entry that outlined his company’s strategy, including a bit of history about how one company had approached them to see if they were interested in suing their users for patent violations. Some thought the unnamed company was likely to have been Microsoft. However, in the same blog entry, Schwartz also claimed Sun had written more than 25% of code in a typical Linux distribution – a false claim, as is clear from his source (see Figure 28 on page 50).

So here we go, another week of CEOs lying through their teeth, and the consumers keeping their head above the FUD. Is Steve Jobs really the only genuine guy out there?

DRM-free: Why now?

Nobody could have missed the news that yesterday, the rules of the digital age were beginning to change for the better. EMI and Apple announced that a new option would be introduced to the Apple Music Store, of allowing the purchase of higher-quality, AAC encoded songs without copy protection. Norway has, of course, been rightfully praised for making a stand in the matter of digital lock-in that caused Jobs to write an open letter to the music industry and the world at large. One may suspect that the .30 USD surcharge is incurred by suspicions that some people will share files with their friends and family. The “analogue gap” seems to no longer be a concern, perhaps never was. But the music industry has been working hard for several years to make the traditional file-sharing networks unusable bittorrent arrived with great promise, but has become respectable with and Zudeo having developed distribution models for copyrighted content. I would therefore argue that a DRM-free deal at this time is as much favoured by the successes of counter-copyvio activities funded by the music industry as it is by Norway’s pressure or Jobs’ taking a stand. As a final comment, I fail to see how Microsoft is a loser in this deal any more than they have been ever since failing to establish compatibility between their own frameworks and with third party devices. It has been said that AAC is an industry standard, which I presume means it can be used without royalty payments to Apple. So Microsoft could be flexible for once and adopt AAC. Like that time they built Vista on top of a Linux or BSD kernel. What do you mean, that never happened? 😉

How to make bad software? Just hire too many people!

The most impressive thing about Microsoft is that they manage to just about hold on to their marketshare while never leaving the bad headlines. Here is just one recent example. Just goes to demonstrate the old adage, “it doesn’t matter what they write about you, only how many column inches you get”. I’d had a suspicion for a while that Microsoft goes for quantity over quality of coders, and there was a comment somewhere recently saying that Microsoft was the only company recruiting by interview rather than code review (and they use those idiosyncratic questions including how to get A, B, C and D across the bridge fastest, or how to figure out which of three switches turns the light on). Microsoft has over 71,000 employees, which of course does include sales and marketing people, but still. Apple has about 18,000 full time employees. Yahoo has 11,000 and Google 10,000. I see a pattern. (BTW, since I wrote about Adobe recently, they have about 5,900.) You can look up those figures on Wikipedia.

Adobe’s Linux problem

Adobe has a problem. Dell customers have strongly voiced their opposition to pre-installed proprietary software, both the operating system and applications. After painful consideration, Dell will give in to their customers, and see a landslide of sales. HP is going down the same track. Of the big brands favoured by the tech elite, Sony will be last to go, who apparently make a special effort to include their own proprietary software with their PCs in an attempt to draw level with Apple’s functionality (my recent VAIO purchase contains the equivalent of iLife in Adobe products). When all this happens, Adobe will have only begun to port applications to Linux – a platform on which they know it will be hard to compete because the free offerings are competitive. Direct competition from a set of Adobe products that all integrate rather better with each other than existing free Linux products do (I’m discussing price here, not openness) will lead those Linux products to draw even. Note, for instance that with Adobe Atmosphere discontinued, Adobe has no product to compete with Blender, meaning that open source products could conceivably become better integrated with each other than Adobe’s line-up.

Microsoft’s quagmire is deeper still. While Office 2007 is an epiphany in office product usability, it will take years for the Wine project to catch up and let 2007 run on Linux, barring direct involvement for Microsoft (we know they’d rather die, at least while Ballmer is CEO). In fact, a full productivity suite for Windows now exists in open source: OpenOffice, Scribus, GIMP, Inkscape, and PDFCreator. The emergence of freeware Adobe Reader replacement Foxit shows that an open source equivalent can’t be far off. Nothing will stop users from leaving the Windows tax behind once they have embraced platform-independent open source applications such as the aforementioned. Open source software for Windows is already being distributed in several downloadable CD formats, such as OpenCD, and the Open Source Software CD; the Ubuntu install CDs for at least some releases have also contained open source productivity software for Windows.

The Adobe brand lures consumers with the free Adobe Reader and cheap Photoshop Elements, but Google’s free Picasa will be welcomed by many that use even fewer features than Photoshop Elements provides, and the feature-laden Adobe Reader may also be too much for some.

The only remaining disadvantage for open source software is the virtual absence of a marketing budget, meaning that it will spread at the product of the speed of word of mouth and the rate of convincing.

I believe that the reason former developing nations in Asia are emerging as ferocious competitors in the technology arena is that they have less red tape, less vendor lock-in (aka inertia), and strong recent rates of natural selection in the absence of government benefits for the unemployed and sick; therefore selection for intelligence may have been stronger in those countries. By this reasoning, South America and Africa will be next to emerge from the shadow.

Dell’s imaginary Linux problem

Dell has a problem. On the IdeaStorm website, many customers have supported the idea of Dell computers being sold either without an operating system or with Linux pre-installed. They have also asked for Firefox and OpenOffice to be pre-installed, and for an option not to have extra software pre-installed. So Dell has a problem. They have to decide to either satisfy their customers, or to become able to negotiate more favourable terms with Microsoft. The solution to their problem is going to be… er… what was the problem again?

Bill Gates, please check your sources

A lot has been said about misinformation given by Bill Gates in his Newsweek Interview, but I’ll gladly join the ranks here, because it really is so disgraceful. I would advise Mr. Gates to investigate whatever internal staff feed him reports. Any IT consultancy would have firmly told him that his comment, “Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally.” is wide and far off the mark.

In fact, as every IT professional knows, Windows is unique in having excessive security problems, which stem from several sources, which I shall go into here, lest I become accused of similar crimes:

  1. The original Windows codebase was designed for a desktop operating system, not a networked one, and as a single-user OS. While little of this codebase may remain today,
  2. Microsoft doubtless picked up a large number of programmers – or even trained them – unaware of basic network security considerations.
  3. While it is possible that there are people at Microsoft who want to make the best software they can for consumers, it is clear that the security problems have not been inconvenient to Microsoft’s business model, as Microsoft relies on its relationship with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to propagate its license relationships with its “home” customers. OEMs want to sell new computers. Microsoft’s Windows is a CPU hog compared to OS X and Linux, and a memory hog relative to Linux. This drives OEM sales. Security software famously slows down systems even further, so in addition to the ecosystem that Microsoft gains to tout the benefits of its OS through third party makers of security software (because the third party companies depend on the Windows market), the memory and CPU requirements of such software help cement Microsoft’s relationship with its OEMs. Finally, promises of increased security can also drive OS sales per se, i.e. for upgrading existing hardware.

It is understandable that Microsoft is pining about the inconvenience consumers are experiencing with the new security measures (“deny”, “allow”) – these are the same problems that OS X had some four or five years ago. Necessary childhood pains that Apple has already resolved. A number of specific Windows security problems, such as not being able to install software under a non-administrative account (and hence having to run with nearly full privileges at all times to have a usable system; both Linux and OS X have always allowed unprivileged users to install software, unless specifically restricted), seem to have been resolved in Vista, but new breaches have been introduced.

Dishing out grievously incorrect information to customers is not a good basis for mutual respect. Mr. Gates commented, “I don’t think the over 90 percent of the [population] who use Windows PCs think of themselves as dullards, or the kind of klutzes that somebody is trying to say they are.” I wonder who Mr. Gates thinks that somebody is.