Microsoft: Why not?

Martin's Annual Linux Experience 2002I called Julian on Monday evening for a chat. We hadn’t spoken for a while, so we had a lot to catch up on. But instead we mostly talked about Microsoft, Linux, and why I’m choosing one over the other.

The conversation came at a good time. Julian disagrees with a lot of what I’ve been saying about Microsoft, and it’s useful to hear the opposite side of the argument. I enjoy writing this blog because it forces me to put all of my vague, incoherent thoughts and feelings into structured sentences, paragraphs, and arguments. (Or, at least, I try to.) By writing about my feelings, I come to understand them better. The only problem is that writing is a solitary activity, and it’s very easy to get locked into a train of thought, and ride it round and round in self-reinforcing circles.

This has got me to the point where at lunchtime on Monday I called up Abi and had frenzy of anxiety at her over the phone. I am at least two to three times as productive on Windows as I am on Linux. A lot of that is because I know Windows so much better, but I do have the horrible feeling that even once I know Linux better, that disparity isn’t going to go away. Also, for the personal projects I want to be working on (AmphetaDesk templates, Bob Shaw web site) there are tools I want to work with (Paint Shop Pro, TextPad) that are only available on Windows. (These programs are my bacon.) Basically, I want to use Windows, because it’s the better tool for me.

(That’s not to say that I can’t do some things more easily on Linux–setting up and running Apache, MySQL and PHP is easier on Linux than it is on Windows. But that’s not where I spend the majority of my time.)

But seeing how I’ve been arguing against Microsoft so strongly recently, returning to it would be a cave-in of collossal proportions. Especially because I have been arguing against Microsoft on ethical grounds. If I have convinced myself that using Microsoft software is unethical, what kind of moral wekling am I for returning to the Redmond fold? It’s like going on a march to protest war against Iraq, and then coming home to play Conflict: Desert Storm. Or something like that.

And is it not worse to perform an act when you have consciously deemed it to be unethical or immoral, than if you had never thought through the ramifications in the first place? If I go back to Windows, I will have to live with the fact that I have considered it to be unethical, and then gone ahead and done it anyway. What kind of a weasel am I?

Abi’s family has a word for this kind of reasoning: a mindfuck. I’m over-intellectualising a decision that under other circumstances I wouldn’t think twice about. Part of my job involves advising on usability. If a client came to me and asked which was more usable, Windows or Linux, it would be Windows all the way, baby. Windows is highly functional, fast, and reliable. It’s not just a good tool, it’s a great tool.

Sure, it has its flaws, but then so does Linux. Windows is less secure out of the box than Linux, and more vulnerable to hacking. But on the other hand, if you know what you’re doing, you can make Windows pretty damn hard to crack, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to leave a Linux box wide open. Conversely, although Linux may be less pretty and usable straight out of the box than Windows is (although it depends on your distro), with some tweaking you can make it look pretty damn nice, and tweak it to eactly your own needs.

Strengths and weaknesses. But for my use, Windows is still the better product. Iwish that Linux were better than it is. Because what I really want to be running is an Operating System that is as good as Windows, but which doesn’t have the ethical baggage.

During our conversation, the main thing Julian made me question is: What exactly is my problem with Microsoft? What is it that they could change that would make them more acceptable? Part of the answer lies in the matter of Open Source versus Open Standards.

Open Source is, in a way, a very individualistic philosophy. It may contribute to the overall public good by creating openness, and (in theory) preventing software vendors from selling software that cripples your PC, leaves backdoors open, or spies on you without your knowledge. But it also encourages the attitude that everyone can (and should) have their own personal version of a piece of software. And that it should be free of charge. (I know that not all Open Source licences require software to be free of cost, but the attitude there nevertheless.)

Open Standards, on the other hand, are more about encouraging people to collaborate. Companies X, Y and Z can all make competing products, but so long as they all work with the same, publicly available, open standard. If a standard (e.g. XHTML) is publicly available, and royalty free, then anyone is free to create a product (e.g. a web browser) that uses it. The products that are successful in the marketplace will be the ones that add the most value to the user’s experience of working with the same underlying standard.

Also, Open Standards mean that documents published according to that standard will always be interpretable, and that (in principle) no-one can be locked out of using them because they can’t afford the entry price. Open Standards are essentially a socialist mechanism, whereas Open Source is a libertarian mechanism.

I am a socialist. Open Standards are important to me; Open Source much less so. I don’t really care that the source code for TextPad is not freely available. Likewise, If Microsoft were to suddenly open up the source code for Windows, would this increase my approval of them? Possibly a little, but what concerns me more is their compliance with, and use of standards.

Take Internet Explorer as an example. IE complies pretty well with the current web standards. Not perfectly, but no current browser is perfect. But IE goes above and beyond the standards: it has its own proprietary extensions to the Document Object Model, its own style attributes, and its own scripting language (VBScript). All of these features give IE additional functionality over and above the basic standards.

In principle, this shouldn’t be a problem. A company should have ways of distinguishing its product. Mozilla has the fantastically cool XUL (which turns it into an exciting application delivery platform), and Opera has features that make browsing faster and eaier. But Microsoft is in a different position than all its competitors, in that it has a practical monopoly in the browser market. (Have a look at Google’s Zeitgeist page to see a graph of what browsers are used to access Google. There are no numbers on the vertical axis, but it’s pretty clear that IE (4+) covers at least 90% of all its on Google.)

With the figures stacked like this, discriminatory practices arise. Web publishers regularly assume that you must be using the dominant browser to access their site, and develop it in such a way that it doesn’t work in other browsers; or they actively turn you away from their door as soon as they see you pulling up in, say, Opera.

Now, this is not Microsoft’s fault. The blame lies squarely with the web publishers for excluding browsers which correctly conform to all the relevant open standards. But Microsoft has nothing to gain from discouraging these practices. Quite the opposite, in fact. The more content is available only to Microsoft browsers, the more people are likely to use them. Which then encourages more people to think that IE is the only browser around, and so on.

The standards are there for the common good. When a company with a monopoly violates, or merely distorts those standards, they are actively acting against the common good. This is what Microsoft does; this is the Capitalist Way.

The sad thing is that Microsoft is made up of really cool, really clever individuals. The Microsofties I know are what Eddie Izzard would describe as “relaxed and groovy”. These are the people who come up with the great ideas for nifty features that would actively improve the products, and improve the user experience of people dealing with them. They really want to make excellent products.

But that is not what the corporate entity that is “Microsoft” wants. As a corporation (and I’m not talking about the individuals at Board level, because they are still individuals) Microsoft exists in a capitalist ecosystem where the evolutionary pressure comes from the stock market. Survival of the fittest rules, and the fittest is the one with the most money, the best profit figures, and the strongest growth rate. Corporate entities don’t care about excellent products, or about the common good, they care about survival.

Modern capitalism might just be at an early stage in its evolution. Perhaps today’s corporate entities are little more than the fishes that have crawled out of the ocean. Perhaps in the future they will evolve consciousness, souls, and consciences. Perhaps then they will take account of the common good, and the well-being of the tiny cells they are all made up of: people.

So here may be the answer to Julian’s question: what is my real problem with Microsoft? My real problem doesn’t lie with Microsoft–it lies with modern capitalism. And Microsoft is a highly visible, highly successful exponent of this modern capitalism, one that is visible three feet in front of my face for eight hours every day.

I see the state of the world, and I despair. Is it any surprise then, that if I want to do something about it, I start with what’s closest to home?

Microsoft is a symptom, not the problem itself. Ditching Microsoft on my home desktop isn’t going to make social injustice, poverty, famine, disease and war go away. It wasn’t even making me feel that much better about the state of the world, and it was making me feel frustrated that it I was doing all that suffering on Linux without making a difference.

But admitting this to myself, and coming round to the idea of going back to Windows, doesn’t make me feel any better. If anything, it just makes me feel more powerless in the face of modern society, and anxious about the world Alex is going to grow up in.

Maybe I’m just having a mid-life crisis. Maybe all I really need to do is go out an buy a little red sports car. Yeah, that would make me feel better.

Except…then there would be all those carbon emissions…

“With the time I wasted on the life I’ll never have,
I could’ve turned myself into a better man.”

Throw it All AwayToad the Wet Sprocket