The Strange Case of Dr Open and Mr Proprietary

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The Sony Rootkit Fiasco

The Sony rootkit disaster is a perfect example of what happens when an industry stubbornly refuses to listen to its market and instead tries to sue it. The desire of people to mix and match music to meet their particular tastes tracks back to the 1950s and the development of the first record changers. By the late 1980s, as this book documents, technology had developed to the point where this customer need could be met (and very profitably). By the late 1990s, only a true pack of idiots would have missed the handwriting on the wall and not moved proactively, in concert with an MP3.com or Napster, to meet the clearly inevitable future. By the millennium's end, you didn't need a crystal ball to see what was coming; all you had to do was take some time out from sucking up to rock gods and snorting cocaine and go out and buy an MP3 player and download some jingles. Instead of suing Shawn Fanning, creator of Napster, one of the music companies should have had enough sense to buy out Napster and make Fanning its VP of business development. Sony's idiocy has only helped establish free MP3s downloaded from peer-to-peer systems as the preferred way to obtain music. When one discusses making money from online music sales, Apple and its iPod hardware platform have a chokehold on the music companies. To understand how anomalous this is, imagine one of the turntable companies of the 1970s or 1980s, perhaps Dual, Thorens, or Garrard, having the power to dictate the price of record albums. The mind boggles.

The facts are these: Music is rapidly decoupling itself from physical mediums such as CDs, DVDs, or whatever their successors may be. And the iPod and competing systems function merely as way stations that allow a person to manage, transmit, and play their musical/video environment as they see fit. The consumer of the future will demand that this environment be portable, of the highest quality, and protected against loss, with buying opportunities (at reasonable prices) integrated directly into the experience. MP3s, MPEGs, higher-quality formats, and satellite radio will increasingly be expected to be flexible, integrated, and available 24/7. As Apple has demonstrated, people will buy music online. What Apple has failed to realize (or least not solved technically) is that people will not endure being locked into an environment where an accident (your MP3 player is lost, breaks, or is stolen), copy protection, or a technology change destroys or damages their personal entertainment environment.

This presents an opportunity for the music industry. Instead of fruitless attempts to put the online genie back in the bottle, consider some fresh thinking. Here are few ideas the industry could consider:

• Selling higher-quality audio files to audiophiles with "golden ears." (These are the people who claim to have the ability to hear upper frequencies commensurate with bats.)

• More aggressively integrating sales opportunities into the online presentations of your musicians. For example, with the demise of vinyl came the loss of an art form, the album cover. Websites can function as online album covers and sell posters. I've visited a half dozen websites plugging different artists and albums; I have yet to see a site where I can buy an album cover/poster for these forthcoming releases.

• Consider encouraging artists to step outside the album and three-minute-tune format and experiment with new approaches. And then be prepared to be the first to sell the new tracks.

• Take a hard look at MP3.com's music locker concept. Didn't it ever occur to anyone in the business that serving as the trusted storage repository for your customer's music might be a good thing?

• Stop suing people. It's fruitless, it angers your market, and it diverts the industry from figuring a way out of the pickle it has put itself in. Recently, the music industry has begun suing websites posting tablatures online. A "tablature" is a form of musical notation that tells players where to place their fingers on a particular instrument rather than follow standard musical notation. Of course, the industry offers no intelligent online alternative for consumers, with the result that the best tablature websites can now be found in places like Russia.

A final suggestion is that decreased drug use by industry executives might lead to clearer thinking.

WPA, WGA, and All That Jazz

Let me be direct. Microsoft should immediately stake WPA, WGA notifications, and all the rest of them through the heart, cut off their heads, stuff their mouths with garlic, and bury them in unhallowed ground. The minor reasons for this are as follows:

• Microsoft is attempting to reprice its software out of historic bounds. In 1981, the introduction of PC DOS reset the price for desktop operating systems to $40.00. Today, that same $40.00 is worth $89.50. The base version of Windows XP, XP Home, currently costs $100.00 (and Microsoft's power in the distribution system makes sure it stays set close to those levels). That doesn't seem like much of a difference, but when you bought the original DOS, you were able to install it on any machine you owned. Up until the introduction of WPA and WGA, you could do this with Windows. Now, if you have more than one PC in your home without an operating system, the cost of Windows is $200.00,1

a 100 percent increase. Add a third system, and you suffer another 100 percent increase.

• Microsoft is attempting to convince new markets in countries such as China and India to adopt Windows instead of Linux. To do so, the company will have to provide Windows at prices greatly reduced from U.S. retail levels. It's already doing this in Thailand (cost of a basic copy of Windows is $36.00) and Malaysia, and you can expect the Chinese and Indians are going to want prices that are at least as good. If not, they're in a position to mandate the use of Linux in their markets. Offering the people who brought you Tiananmen Square sweetheart prices on the world's favorite OS will be very, very unpopular in the U.S. market. And having a little tattler, Jewish mother, and executioner in your computer isn't going to make people feel better about the situation. Worse for Microsoft,

1 Actually, if you own one retail copy of Windows, you can buy an additional "license" and get a whopping $15 off the retail price. However, almost no one knows about this program because Microsoft does little to publicize it.

I don't think those governments are going to allow Windows to stick kill switches in the software sold in their countries. This will make Americans feel even worse and Linux and open source increasingly attractive.

• Microsoft's behavior with its copy protection systems is starting to make people remember the DOJ trial and "guilty of monopoly abuse" verdicts. It's also likely to attract the attention of European commissions, groups that like to hand out big fines to the Redmond giant. Windows is becoming the most expensive component in the purchase of a computer. As noted in this chapter, when computers cost $2000.00 to $4000.00, as they did in the period during which Microsoft was establishing its desktop OS monopoly, the cost of the operating system was easily overlooked. But this has changed. Highly functional systems for home and regular office use can now be purchased for less than $499.00, and prices continue to slide. In the 1980s, companies such as WordPerfect found it impossible to sell $499.00 word processors to people buying $499.00 Amigas and Ataris. Microsoft increasingly finds itself in a similar dilemma. If you're buying a computer without an operating system, paying from $100.00 to $150.00 for a copy of Windows Professional for a computer that costs less than $500.00 has many people scratching their heads. For system builders such as Dell, Lenovo, and HP, OEM prices for Windows range from $30.00 to $80.00, depending on the number of licenses ordered and your ability to negotiate a good deal with Microsoft. For many of the systems built by manufacturers, this makes Windows the single most expensive item in the bill of materials. As a result, more and more PC builders are looking at Linux with deep longing.

• WPA, WGA, and all the rest of it make Microsoft look old and out of touch. With the Indian and Chinese markets exploding, SaaS opening new markets, open source pushing along the process of commoditization of operating systems and desktop applications, and the digital revolution in entertainment and personal information spreading daily, are copy protection schemes the best things Microsoft can focus on? The company grew to its current status of software colossus without help from copy protection. Perhaps Microsoft is feeling arthritic and wants to turn Windows into a sinecure? WPA will keep Granny Microsoft safe and secure while she sips her cup of warm milk, allows inspissation to clog her arteries and tamp down the fires of innovation, and reflexively smacks her toothless gums while endlessly reminiscing about the good old days of ATs, floppy disks, and how she once spanked those whippersnappers VisiOn and OS/2.

The major reason to drop copy protection is that Microsoft is placing itself athwart the rails of new trends as the engine of change bears down on it. Since the introduction of the original IBM PC, I have never bought a fully configured Intel-derived computer. I've always bought either stripped units or component parts and configured or built my own systems. I do this because a) I enjoy it (sort of), b) to save money (not really anymore), c) to learn about how new hardware interacts with new software, and d) to give myself the best chance to move my files and programs over to the new system with a minimum of agony and loss.

I have recently built a new system and spent weeks being stymied in my attempts to preserve my current computing environment. The image management system I've been using allows me to create backups of my partitions and move these to my new computer, but attempting to boot the computer with these partitions immediately crashed the system. Not even Windows XP's Safe Mode can handle the transferred environment.

I did have an alternative to what I attempted, one that has been suggested by several computing experts. I could take "advantage" of the situation to simply do a clean "reinstall" of my Windows system, on the theory that after several years of use, all Windows' installations become "gunked up" and sluggish because of performance and safety degradation (an odd concept when you consider that software can't rust or decay). This is finally what I was forced to do, but the new computer has been sitting idle for months after its purchase and assembly. That's because the path of a clean install means I'm throwing away the most valuable computer asset I own, my working "environment." The idea of throwing away four years of accumulated tweaking and alteration of my virtual workbench throws me into the same kind of cold sweat felt by those who lost their Day-Timers on innumerable trains, taxis, cars, and airplanes during the 1980s and early 1990s. My computing environment is more than a workspace; in an increasingly real sense, it's my "life."

It's also extremely valuable. In 1981, the cost of a fully loaded IBM PC, with all the associated accessories and software you needed to be productive, ranged from $4,000.00 to $8,000.00 (and could easily go higher). That amount of money bought you a car back then. Today, a highly functional PC with equivalent accessories and software costs you about $500.00 to $800.00 (adjusted for inflation, that's about $300.00 to $600.00 in 1981 dollars). That buys you a set of tires for your car. Laptops prices are also plummeting rapidly, with mid-level units now costing from $400.00 to $700.00, on average.

But what is the time cost of replacing your computing environment? First, let's define what your computing environment comprises. It can include the following:

• Your applications

• Your hardware settings

• Your PC's BIOS settings

• All DRM (digital rights management) protection that has been applied to copy-protected products such as Windows and Office

• Fixes to Windows, Office, and all other applications you have installed

• Your Internet bookmarks, cookies, saved passwords, and so on

• The organization of your desktop

• Custom configurations you may have applied to your system, including color choices, taskbar arrangement, registry tweaks, integrated services, and so on, and so on

• All data that drives applications; for instance, lists of keywords and phrases that drive a macro program, Skype addresses, AIM custom-configured buddy lists, and so on

• Images and backups of your data

• And anything else I've neglected to remember

What do you estimate the cost of replicating all this would be, assuming you do a ground-up rebuild of your system? And just how do you propose to manage the process? I'm not aware of any tool that allows you to inventory and track all the myriad adjustments and changes you can and do make to a workspace you've developed over the years. Furthermore, how many of you have kept track of all the serial numbers, passwords, and configuration data you'll need to reinstall and reconfigure your various programs and access the various websites important to your business and work requirements?

There are programs that purport to make this process easier; I've used several, and they all have severe restrictions. Some of these products barely, or don't, work (as I'm finding). Most, of course, don't deal with files; that's the responsibility of backup. None, so far as I can tell, quite know what to do about DRM. Some standards groups are looking at the problem, most notably U3 (http://www.u3.com), a portable computing environment standard being pushed by companies such as SanDisk. I think they're heading in the right direction for the Windows world, but it's too early to know how effective their standard will be and even U3 doesn't have an answer for WPA and WGA.

I sat down and estimated that a complete reinstall and reconstruction of my current computing system would take approximately 100 hours (this counts the time required to locate all applications, locate all documents associated with the applications, request lost documents and configuration information, physically reinstall them, and then test and "debug" the new environment to try to discover what I've missed and which products no longer work). Since I've had to create "from scratch environments" more than 25 times over the years, this number is not based simply on supposition but on hard-won personal experience.

Let's assume you're a working professional who bills out their time at $50 per hour, with 50 hours needed for a complete rebuild (generous estimates) of your computing workspace. That means the replacement cost of your environment is $2,500.00; that's not counting lost opportunity expenses you may incur as you attempt to reconstruct a lost or corrupted environment. I've spoken to professionals who peg the value of their environment at far higher levels; one attorney I spoke to estimated the cost of rebuilding her environment from scratch to be $20,000.00. And the costs of your environment are steadily rising; after all, most of us are not relying less on computing power and Internet access to do business, but more. Increasingly, more people are going to expect that their personalized computing environments are permanent and valuable investments that will "die" only when they do (and maybe not even then).

Despite this, many practices in the software industry, such as the reintroduction of copy protection, make computing environments more fragile and easily damaged or lost. This places customers and companies at cross-purposes to each other and presents major problems for the next release of Windows, Office, and other platforms. For the most part, these products are very insensitive to the value of an environment; worse, their greater complexity, combined with such delights as WPA and WGA, makes them increasingly unable to be "fixed" in case of a problem. Conversely, major opportunities exist for products and services that can harden, protect, and guarantee the survival of a user's most valuable computing asset. Open source products help meet this need. So does SaaS, at some levels.

But Windows, with its tattler, nag, and executioner, doesn't. For an example of how this can be expected to play out, all Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have to do is buy an iPod, download some MP3s, and let Steve Jobs and Napster's heirs rock their world.

AFTERWORD: Stupid Development Tricks

The complete title of In Search of Stupidity includes the phrase "HighTech Marketing Disasters," and from these words you might conclude that it's a firm's marketers who usually bear the chief responsibility for major corporate catastrophes. This isn't true. To be worthy of mention in this book, it took the combined efforts of personnel in upper management, development, sales, and marketing, all fiercely dedicated to ignoring common sense, the blatantly obvious, and the lessons of the past. Major failure doesn't just happen: To achieve it, everyone must pull together as a team.

Chapter 4 of In Search of Stupidity helps drive this point home. For Micropro to plummet from the software industry's pinnacle to permanent oblivion took a) upper management's mishandling of development and market timing, b) the marketing department's idiotic decision to create a fatal product-positioning conflict, and c) the development team's dimwitted decision to rewrite perfectly good code at a critical time because it wanted to write even better code that no one really needed. A magnificent example of different groups within a company all cooperating to ensure disaster.

in this spirit, i've decided to include selected portions of an interview with Joel Spolsky that ran on SoftwareMarketSolution (http:// www.softwaremarketsolution.com), a website sponsored by the author of this book that provides resources and information on products and services of interest to high-tech marketers. (By the way, this interview was "picked up" by Slashdot [http://www.slashdot.org], a website dedicated to technology, coding, open source, and all things nerd. it generated a considerable amount of comment and controversy. You can search the Slashdot archives to read what other people thought and gain further insight into Joel's opinions.)

I regard Joel Spolsky, president and one of the founders of Fog Creek Software (http://www.fogcreek.com), as one of the industry's most fascinating personalities. He worked at Microsoft from 1991 to 1994 and has more than 10 years of experience managing the software development process. As a program manager on the Microsoft Excel team, Joel designed Excel Basic and drove Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) strategy. His website, Joel on Software (http:// www.JoelonSoftware.com), is visited by thousands of developers worldwide every day. His first book, User Interface Design for Programmers (Apress, 2001), was reviewed on SoftwareMarketSolution, and I regard it as a must-have for anyone involved in developing and marketing software.

Why this interview? If you've ever worked on the software side of high technology, you've probably experienced the following: After a careful analysis of your product's capabilities, the competition, and the current state of the market, a development and marketing plan is created. Release time frames are discussed and agreed upon. Elaborate project management templates are built, and milestones are set. You post the ship date up on a wall where everyone in your group can see it, and your team begins to work like crazed beavers to meet your target.

Then, as the magic day looms nearer, ominous sounds emit from development. Whispers of "crufty code" and "bad architecture" are overheard. Talk of "hard decisions" that "need to be made" starts to wend its way through the company grapevine. People, especially the programmers, walk by the wall on which you've mounted the ship date, pause, shake their heads, and keep walking.

Finally, the grim truth is disgorged. At a solemn meeting, development tells everyone the bad news. The code base of the current product is a mess. Despite the best and heroic efforts of the programmers, they've been unable to fix the ancient, bug-ridden, fly-bespeckled piece of trash foisted on them by an unfeeling management. No other option remains. The bullet must be bitten. The gut must be sucked up. The Rubicon must be crossed. And as that sinking feeling gathers in your stomach and gains momentum as it plunges toward your bowels, you realize that you already know what you're about to hear. And you already know that, after hearing it, you'll be groping blindly back to your cubicle, your vision impeded by the flow of tears coursing down your face, your eyes reddened by the sharp sting of saline. And you've already accepted it's time to get your resume out and polished, because the next few financial quarters are going to be very, very ugly.

And then they say it. The product requires a ground-up rewrite. No other option exists.

Oh, you haven't been through this yet? Well, just wait. You will. However, as you'll learn, what you're going to be told may very well not be true. After reading this interview, you'll be in a better position to protect your vision and your career in the wonderful world of high tech. And now . . .

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