Seamless Mess Mesh Computing

Microhoo, Forward to the Future

Microsoft's Chief Technology Officer Ray Ozzie talked at a Las Vegas technology conference recently about the company's plans to build a "seamless mesh" computing infrastructure, inclusive of online applications and mobile devices. Microsoft is of course looking to extend its reach and in keeping with this goal aggressively proposes to merge with Yahoo. In public relations efforts focused on its Yahoo offer the company spins out comforting nuggets of merger wisdom. Ozzie told the Financial Times Monday: "'Technology companies, if they dive in and just smash things together for smashing them together's sake, it's reckless, it's just simply reckless.'" ("Microsoft in No Rush to Merge Yahoo Technology.") The message for investors, employers and customers is that Microsoft understands the risks of large mergers.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Ozzie spews sage adages about the heedless smashing together of things, Microsoft contends with product fallout from its latest operating system. In "They Criticized Vista. And They Should Know", the New York Times describes Vista's incompatibility problems and quotes three top executives who make disparaging on-the-record remarks. Granted they don't sling zingers worthy of Democratic presidential campaign staff, but one Microsoft executive who bought a "Vista Capable" PC, then thrashed through reckoning with its limited functionality told the Times: "I now have a $2,100 e-mail machine."

According to the story, many users refuse to upgrade and instead run XP because of Vista's reputation for various issues like: "[t]he graphics chip that couldn't handle Vista's whizzy special effects. The long delays as it loaded. The applications that ran at slower speeds. The printers, scanners and other hardware peripherals, which work dandily with XP, that lacked the necessary software, the drivers, to work well with Vista." All these problems after multiple launch delays. Is Vista a "smashed together" product?

Trash From The Past

If Vista had been launched at another time in history, like after any one of its proceeding operating systems -- MS-DOS, Windows 1.0, 2.0, 286, 386, 3.0, or Windows for Workgroups 3.1 or 3.11, for instance, these users might be duly appreciative. Today's new operating systems are comparatively customer friendly. Mind you today's customers have every right to complain heartily -- but lets get some perspective from the systems of yore.

Once operating systems didn't come bundled on PCs and setting them up took hours. This was often a collaborative group effort, as individuals all over the world, through trials and tribulation, would acquire tricks for easing the process then share their expertise on websites or via newgroups. Here's how one set of instructions for installing Windows for Workgroups 3.11, circa 1995, touted the new operating system from the Redmond company: "WFWG 3.11 is a real product with a real manual and Microsoft support. If there is a problem installing it, then there are many other sources of information available for troubleshooting the problem." Hard to overemphasize the importance of other sources back then.

If you weren't blessed with a CD-Rom, you'd do the installation by floppy, and so for Windows for Workgroups you'd get your pile of installation floppy discs and settle down at your computer for some fun. Four steps in, the guide offered some advice on the part, "add network protocol"

"With a bit of luck, the TCP/IP-32 protocol will be in the list. If not, then it is an "Unlisted or Updated Protocol" which is the first choice. Unfortunately, even if the TCP/IP protocol is listed, WFWG generally doesn't really know where to find it. It may invent a plausible but incorrect directory...No matter what choice is made, be prepared to fill in a dialog box with the letter and directory where the Microsoft TCP/IP distribution directory is found. Once the files are located, WFWG will copy them into the WFWG system and will add the protocol to the list in the Network Drivers and Network Setup panels. Back out by clicking the various OK buttons."

That's how it went, not mind-boggling, but tedious. If the installation was successful it was a great moment, but you'd keep that pile of floppies close at hand because who knew? If soon after you tried to install some software in an order that the operating system found offensive or if the computer for no apparent reason ceased to function in a predictable way, often your only recourse was to "reinstall". Vista is a system with today's problems, as all Microsoft operating systems have had age appropriate glitches for perpetual cutting edge user demanded technologies.

Crash To the Past

Vista problems were accompanied by a less than straight-forward marketing scheme with confusing (some say deceptive) advertising. In order to market Vista to lower end computers, the NYT says, Microsoft changed the label on new PC's. from the definitive "Vista Ready", which it wasn't, to the more wishy-washy "Vista Capable", a dubious distinction that many customers assumed meant "able", but actually meant "unable", and "incapable" of running any version of Vista except the scaled down one called "Home Basic", missing many of Vista's advertised features. There's the catch.

The judge in the lawsuit against Microsoft granted the case class-action status, so the plaintiffs who bought a PC labeled "Windows Vista Capable" could seek compensation for the company's deceptive marketing aimed at increasing demand. Microsoft appealed the class-action status, saying since customers had "different information" they weren't all in the same class, and because, "[c]ontinued proceedings here would cost Microsoft a substantial sum of money for discovery and divert key personnel from full-time tasks." But doesn't Microsoft systematically buck for court proceedings in lieu of nicer, profit-curtailing behavior? What better use of key personnel then?

They DOS Protest Too Much

Sure, some key personnel -- top executives -- spend time complaining to the New York Times about Vista. The paper quoted Microsoft VP Mike Nash saying "I personally got burned", which is interesting because VP's usually don't get "burned" on operating systems they (buy?) at steep employee discounts, especially when they have a stake in the company's rising stock. But still, when your executives go on the record with such admissions it can't be good -- or can it? Since key personnel are unlikely to join the class action suit, maybe their playing the we're all in it together card?

Some key personnel also make soothing sounds about the future and Microhoo, and some more stay busy shaking off the past and a chaffed EU, which seethes over MS refusals to share code and play nice. Last month the EU fined Microsoft 1.3 billion Euros for interoperability issues. The company has 3 months to pay off the fine which increases daily as the value of the dollar sinks.

Some complained that the fine was staggering, but to keep this in perspective -- Microsoft is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. No company likes piles of cash to whither away but this relatively small fine is also an important piece of the business model, balanced by profits rendered from the same strategies that peeved the EU. Yes, Microsoft has promised to be less secretive and more open in the future but it will no doubt will appeal the decision.

The company may express yearning to be free on the internet and in mobile devices, but its bread and butter is embedded in its desktop products -- its software, its browser and its operating system -- mainframe as that may seem. Steve Balmer commented that the fines were for past issues now behind the company. But the company's profit is in proprietary systems and maintaining market share by shutting down competition. So what to expect? Naturally, Microsoft will continue to conduct business "competitively", as usual.It will build impressive backwards compatible software and strategize about how to squeeze profit out of some of Yahoo's services. To do this still more "key personnel" will be the large teams of razor-teethed lawyers, ready, no doubt, for many court bouts. Brussel's just initiated two new antitrust investigations against the Microsoft.

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