The problem of Microsoft
Uncomfortable thoughts department. I’ve been pondering — under pressure from a terrific essay by Scoble — about the problem posed by Microsoft. It’s easy to slip into the ‘Evil Empire’ view of Gates & Co. (and I do slip into it from time to time), but really it’s not a fruitful way to understand what’s going on. Microsoft is a tough, highly aggressive, company, but not uniquely so. I guess that anyone who came up against John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in the early 1900s would have reckoned that was a uniquely aggressive, ruthless company. Ditto for Disney. The truth is — as Scoble points out — that there are some very good reasons why Microsoft has become as dominant as it is. In the early days of the PC, for example, many of us wanted a technical standard — any standard — that would liberate us from the curse of incompatible software and document formats. The rise of MS-DOS and (later) WIndows gave us that. We just weren’t very good at forward thinking — at extrapolating what ownership of that technical standard would lead to.
Secondly, Microsoft hasn’t become as successful as it is solely by forcing its products on customers. Indeed you could argue — and Nathan Myhrvold for one has argued — that much of the feature bloat which disfigures Microsoft software comes from user demand, particularly the demands of corporate customers. Microsoft is very good at listening to its customers.
Which brings us to Palladium. One way of looking at it is to see it as Gates’s bid for global domination. Another way is to see it as a response to corporate demand for more security and control over their employees.
There is a public policy dilemma here too. On the one hand, we want to preserve the unique possibilities for innovation introduced by the open architecture of the Net and the PC. On the other hand we have to face the terrifying possibility that the communications infrastructure of our societies is incredibly vulnerable to attack — whether by script kiddies, terrorists or rogue states. Of course the security deficiencies of Microsoft software (especially the raw socket capabilities of Windows XP) greatly contribute to this vulnerability. But even if we remove that from the picture, we are left with the awkward reality that we have a terribly vulnerable infrastructure. That’s the problem to which the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance (TCPA) and Palladium are proposed solutions.