Column: Microsoft antitrust

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can’t
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff , from the 13 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
I’m frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?

I won’t bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won’t.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there’s rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft’s dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.

Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace — AOL Inc.’s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It’s hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: “Hmm! I think I’ll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!” without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don’t believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What’s more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies’ bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn’t close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry — the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer — had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft’s name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook — the e-mail and contact-management program — had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn’t even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn’t really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I’ve started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn’t removed a simple old e-mail program I’d ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’d recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I’d suggest you submit your own comments to the court  — something you’re entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like “flabbergasted” a lot.

 

Column: the future of the PDA

Loose Wire: The Future’s in Your Handheld
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff , 6 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Okay, so my track record as tech visionary isn’t flawless, but bear with me. After all, I’m the guy who thought fold-out keyboards for personal digital assistants, or PDAs, wouldn’t catch on. (In its first year of shipping, United States-based Think Outside Inc. sold more than one million of its Stowaway keyboards, offering 24 different versions and making it the most successful new product for handheld computing ever.)

I’m also the guy who last February described the credit-cardsized Rex personal organizer as “the future.” Its latest owner, Intel Corp., stopped producing them in August. Oh, and I thought installing Windows XP, the latest version of Microsoft’s ubiquitous operating system, was a good idea; I removed it earlier this month when it slowed my programs to a crawl, was fickle in connecting to the Internet and — although I have no concrete proof of this, I’m convinced — invited aliens to take over my PC.

But I’m sure I’ll be proved right on this next prediction: that the PDA represents the future of computing as we know it. These gadgets represent our best chance to make computing an activity that isn’t wed to the environment — from hunting for a power outlet or phone socket to being stuck in the office next to the guy who coughs up fur balls all day. PDAs offer us the chance of being always on, always connected, always updated and, at least in theory, always on time for meetings.

PDAs, however, aren’t quite ready for us yet. Wireless connectivity is still only available to the lucky few. Only a handful of manufacturers have combined the PDA with the handphone and most of those are still operating at the laughably slow speeds provided by the popular Global System for Mobile, or GSM. But this will change — more slowly than we’d like, but it will. New handphones hitting the streets in coming months will make use of 2.5G and GPRS — a halfway house between what you’re used to — GSM — and what you were promised — 3G, or Third Generation wireless telecommunications — which will speed things up.

This will help make the PDA much more than just a toy. If you are able get a decent connection to the company network or the Internet, you won’t just be able to check e-mail and surf. You can synchronize company spreadsheets, contact databases, and update inventories, price lists and orders.

Right now there’s a mismatch between what people want from these things and what they can actually do — and this undermines our faith in them. I packed up my Hewlett-Packard Jornada and its keyboard and headed outside last week to write a column, only to find I couldn’t read the colour screen in bright sunlight. And, unless you’re vaguely techie-ish, chances are you don’t back up all that often, either to your PC or to a flash-memory card, raising the likelihood that you lose all your data on the road to a crash, or you drop it in a nearby swamp.

Still, what really matters is getting software that’s tailored to your needs, however specific. One very useful tool, for example, is a program developed by U.S.-based Firepad Inc. (www.firepad.com) which converts most PC or Mac formats of image and video files to something that can easily be downloaded or viewed on a Palm. This is great for professionals, from engineers to estate agents, who don’t want to lug diagrams, technical manuals, catalogues or blue prints around with them.

There are other reasons PDAs might be about to take off. Screens are getting better — the Palm m505 has an excellent colour screen — while peripherals are getting more useful, from plug-in cameras to GPS tracking devices. Battery life is improving, too: the Compaq iPAQ 3870 is supposed to run for 12 hours or more. Handwriting recognition is also getting better: Microsoft’s Transcribe software comes preloaded on the latest Pocket PCs, allowing users to write longhand on the screen and their scribblings to be interpreted into digital text on the fly.

This isn’t going to happen tomorrow. And because it’s me predicting it, it may well not happen at all. But if we can get our heads around it, we may find that the humble PDA may end up being more productive than our desktop PC by doing what we want it to do, when we want it to. Especially if you have to abandon your desktop PC to aliens.