The Evil Empire
Canadians now use computers, whether at home (where over half of all
Canadian homes now have computers), at work, or at school. And the vast
majority of those computers use Microsoft productivity software such as
Microsoft Office running on top of Microsoft operating systems—generally
some version or other of Microsoft Windows.
easy to take Microsoft Windows and Office for granted. They’re just the
computing environments in which we work and play. But like a polluted
physical environment, the Microsoft computing environment has its share
security. Microsoft’s products are the number one target of hackers and
virus-writers. Some of that’s because they have the overwhelming
majority of users, making them the most tempting target. But the
security problems are not just a symptom of Microsoft’s commercial
success. Microsoft’s best-known products have been designed; from the
ground up, in ways that make them difficult to run securely, and easy
for hackers to, well, hack.
Office, for instance, includes a full-fledged programming language,
Visual Basic for Applications. This was included to make it easy for a
tiny minority of corporate users to develop sophisticated forms and
macros using functions from the office suite’s various modules. (When
was the last time you wrote a macro? Whatever that is!) But this same
power allows hackers to write e-mail viruses that take over Outlook’s
address book, spreading the virus to everyone you’ve got stored there.
No surprise that most current viruses prey on users of Outlook (included
with Microsoft Office) or Outlook Express (included with Microsoft
biggest competition for Microsoft newest versions, currently Windows XP
and Office XP are older versions of Windows and Office; neither business
nor home users are upgrading to Microsoft’s latest in the numbers that
the company wants. The result—Microsoft is increasingly putting the
pressure on its customers in a variety of ways:
- Both Windows XP and Office XP use
‘product-activation’, making it more difficult to use a single copy on
- New licensing schemes aimed at big
corporate accounts aim to make it more expensive for customers who do
not upgrade in lockstep with Microsoft’s release schedule, whether the
customers feel the need to upgrade or not.
- Microsoft has dropped support for Windows
95, even though that older version is still used by millions of users.
New Microsoft products, from Office XP to Internet Explorer 6 refuse to
install on computers running Windows 95. While the company recently
pushed back the date it will drop support for Windows 98, the upcoming
Office 2003 release reportedly will require that users run either
Windows 2000 or XP.
- The company is the major force behind
groups such as the Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft (CAAST) and
its US equivalent, the Business Software Alliance
(BSA), which have bombarded randomly selected small businesses, schools,
and other organizations with letters threatening audits to ensure that
there are licenses on file for every piece of software running on every
As the 500-pound gorilla of the technology
industry, even companies that don’t directly compete with Microsoft end
up fearful. Computer manufacturers are reliant on being able to get
cheap licenses for the company’s products, and (as was pointed out in
testimony at recent anti-trust hearings in the US) have been limited in what they can do
with their products. Software companies worry whether Microsoft will
choose to enter their little corner of the business. Just this week (as
I write this), Microsoft purchased a little-known Romanian software
company marketing anti-virus software, affecting the value of shares of
companies like Symantec, makers of Norton AntiVirus.
While for large numbers of users,
Microsoft has become synonymous with personal computers, for many other
users, it’s the Evil Empire.
Next month: some alternatives.