The worm turns on Gates

Microsoft is being attacked for the wrong reasons.

Sandy Starr

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Topics Science & Tech

If there was one thing more disheartening than the ‘Blaster’ worm virus that infected more than 350,000 computers around the world earlier this month (before it was superseded by the even more catastrophic Sobig-F worm), it was the fact that one of the two messages hidden inside the worm was: ‘billy gates why do you make this possible? Stop making money and fix your software!’ (1)

The assumption behind this message – that the anti-social activity of disrupting people’s computer usage is morally acceptable, so long as it is targeted against big, bad Microsoft and its chairman Bill Gates – is sadly characteristic of the strong vein of anti-Microsoft sentiment that exists today. The Blaster worm was just one in a series of viruses that target those who use Microsoft software to access the internet, including one earlier this year that was transmitted via an email purporting to be sent from ‘support@microsoft.com’ (2).

Microsoft-bashing is an easy and popular pastime, which appeals to everyone from the free software and open source movements to the modern anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement to luddites who believe that technology should stand still and stay simple. Since Microsoft’s software is ubiquitous, it has become the de facto target for all computer-related gripes. Any computer-related organisation or initiative can now be made to appear morally justified, so long as it has Microsoft as its target.

Take former university researcher Michael Doyle, founder and sole employee of Eolas Technologies Inc, whose recent successful patent infringement lawsuit has resulted in Microsoft being ordered to pay him $520million. This case was broadly interpreted as a just victory for a plucky David fighting an evil Goliath, despite some commentators arguing that the lawsuit was a cynical exercise in using an overly broad patent to go after Microsoft’s money (3). It seems that whenever Microsoft is involved in a dispute, it automatically becomes the villain of the piece, while its opponent is cast as the hero.

None of which is to say that Microsoft is a flawless company, beyond all criticism – far from it. Microsoft has itself been guilty of exploiting software patents, to an extent that threatens to put a brake on innovation rather than stimulating innovation (4). Microsoft initiatives in areas such as trusted computing and digital rights management are also problematic.

‘Trusted computing’ thrusts a social ideal of ‘trust’ upon technical systems that those systems can never ultimately satisfy, thus setting the technology up for a fall (5). And digital rights management threatens to diminish the public availability of creative works and the flexibility with which those works are consumed, disrupting the balance between public benefit and private reward that lies at the heart of traditional intellectual property regulation (6).

Accusations that Microsoft locks its customers into a pointless and perpetual upgrade cycle, and that it constantly issues dodgy patches to repair software whose obsolescence is built in, are somewhat exaggerated. Just about all software contains some bugs and security holes, and since Microsoft is the world’s leading software company, its software is inevitably held up to greater scrutiny than most. But there is no doubt that the reliability and security of Microsoft products could be significantly improved.

Even if Microsoft is far from perfect, however, the moralism that surrounds discussion of the company’s shortcomings makes it difficult to assess Microsoft products on the strict grounds of innovation and technological merit. Rival companies have been quick to exploit an undeserved opportunity to depict themselves as superior to Microsoft on moral, rather than technological grounds.

As Jason Burton points out elsewhere on spiked, open source software is being used as ‘a political football between the large commercial interests’ – endorsed not necessarily for its technological merits, but simply as an means for companies to distance themselves from the unfashionable Microsoft (see Open source chic, by Jason Burton).

So when you remove moralism from the equation, what to make of Microsoft’s claim that it is a leading innovator? Technologists frequently scoff at this, pointing out that just about all of Microsoft’s innovations were originally appropriated from elsewhere (7). And Microsoft has been infamously slow in the past to pick up on key developments in computing – for example, it rushed to catch up with web technology after others had already led the way.

But as an objection to Microsoft’s claim to be an innovator, this is a false critique. The process of taking an existing, innovative idea, and developing it into a saleable commodity which is easily usable by the general public (not just by the technologically literate), is a process that involves innovation in and of itself. Microsoft’s success with the general consumer is legitimate reward for its aptitude at such innovation. When it comes to more specialist products, which are not intended for general consumption – for instance, web and network server software, and government technology – Microsoft faces more substantial competition from innovative open source products, which is equally fair (8).

The fact that Microsoft felt compelled by the increasing popularity of open source software in the public sector to make the source code for Windows available to governments and governmental agencies, is no bad thing – rather, it is an interesting response to a legitimate business challenge (9). If only Microsoft’s competitors could see the company’s dominance of the consumer market as a similarly legitimate challenge, rather than a sinister conspiracy, then today’s debate about innovation might be a more sensible and productive one.

Those who take Microsoft to task simply for behaving in a strategic and opportunistic manner seem to believe that we inhabit a fairytale universe, where good ideas are translated directly, by unpaid philanthropists, into immaculate products that benefit the public. They find it disconcerting to discover that we live in a world where successful companies take advantage of their strengths to gain competitive advantage over other companies, set technical standards, and turn a profit in the process.

It’s an interesting exercise to try and imagine what Microsoft could do to placate all of its critics. Open up all of its source code, thus relinquishing its hard-won position as market leader, and undermining once and for all the security of its products? Subsidise rival companies? Cease to exist? In truth, even if Microsoft did all of these things, then whichever company succeeded as market leader in its place would be subject to similar opprobrium. If Microsoft didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it.

Microsoft has fallen foul of the law in its pursuit of success, spending the past decade dogged by antitrust proceedings brought by both the US and the European authorities, not to mention a number of additional lawsuits brought by rival companies (10). The basic accusation that runs through these cases is that Microsoft has abused its market position by engaging in maliciously anti-competitive behaviour, in order to preserve its dominance.

Whether one believes that the legal sanctions Microsoft has incurred to date are excessive or do not go far enough, this is no longer the key issue in the debate. The key issue is, what are the consequences for innovation, of the way that the parties involved relate to these legal proceedings? Is there a danger that by continuing to issue lawsuits and haggle over compensation, Microsoft’s competitors are seeking the easiest way to grab a bigger piece of an existing market, instead of striving to dethrone Microsoft with genuinely innovative products? And what of Microsoft’s own reaction to proceedings?

Following the April 2000 ruling in the initial antitrust proceedings brought against Microsoft, by US federal and state prosecutors, Bill Gates pledged that ‘innovation will continue to be the number one priority at Microsoft’ (11). But there is evidence to suggest that the company is actually lowering its horizons, in the face of a cautious business climate that is hostile to ambition.

Microsoft’s recent announcement that it would cease to offer its employees share options – the method of employee reward, predicated on future growth in share prices, that was popular during the dotcom boom – suggests a lowering of ambitions for future success (12). And the company’s prediction, in its most recent quarterly earnings report, of relatively flat future performance, is similarly disconcerting (13).

The problem with the debate over Microsoft is not that Microsoft is criticised, but that it is criticised for the wrong reasons – for being too ambitious, instead of for not being ambitious enough. As Microsoft continues to be pilloried for its ambitions, and as its initiatives are consistently shot down for their moral implications before they are assessed for their technological merit, the company – while paying lip service to innovation – is scaling down its product development to what less ambitious players in the marketplace think is realistic. Innovation as a whole is likely to suffer, if Microsoft is made toothless.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Microsoft braces for Blaster, Wired News, 15 August 2003. See the definition of a worm on the WhatIs.com website

(2) See Virus mimics Microsoft email, BBC News, 19 May 2003

(3) See .5 bn USD damages for patent on browser extensions, on the FFII: Software Patents in Europe website; and the Hypermedia section of ‘Software Patents and their Implications: Four Case Studies’, by Dudley Carr, Andy Gray, Eric Watkins and Grant Yang, Stanford University, 5 June 2000

(4) See Microsoft and patents, on the FFII: Software Patents in Europe website

(5) See Trusting technology, by Norman Lewis

(6) See the Microsoft Palladium section of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre website

(7) See The Microsoft ‘Hall of Innovation’, on the Boycott Micro$oft website

(8) See How will Gates fight Linux? It’s a dead giveaway, John Naughton, Observer, 18 May 2003

(9) See Microsoft announces government security programme, Microsoft Corporation, 14 January 2003

(10) See the United States v Microsoft section of the United States Department of Justice website; Commission gives Microsoft last opportunity to comment before concluding its antitrust probe, European Commission, 6 August 2003; Microsoft’s decade in court: A brief history, Leon Palmer, Silicon.com, 23 November 1998

(11) Microsoft plans to appeal US District Court ruling in antitrust lawsuit, Microsoft Corporation, 3 April 2000

(12) See Microsoft Reshapes Compensation for Continued Success, Microsoft Corporation, 8 July 2003

(13) See Microsoft reports fourth quarter earnings, Microsoft Corporation, 17 July 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Science & Tech

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