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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

The S-Word: How Microsoft Hopes Its New Emphasis on Security Will Lead to Global Domination

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Last week's column about Microsoft's apparent effort to hijack the Universal Serial Bus specification brought a yawn from the very Open Source partisans at whom it is aimed. So what if it takes a weekend to reverse engineer the spec and get those new USB ports running on your Linux box? Well, reverse engineering isn't what it used to be, and this USB gambit is only part of a far grander plan. Yes, a clever programmer or two could probably crack the voodoo inside Microsoft's new USB in no time at all, but doing so would be in violation of the anti-circumvent clause of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which effectively prohibits reverse engineering "security" features. So the guy who wrote to me from Brazil has nothing to worry about, but any American who either accomplishes the circumvention OR MAKES USE OF IT "shall be fined not more than $500,000 or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both, for the first offense; and shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both, for any subsequent offense."

If that sounds both draconian and stupid, well, it is. Probably the best response the little guys and gals of Open Source could come up with is to violate en masse and thereby attempt to take down the DMCA as unenforceable. It's a great idea, though I'm pretty sure I'll be sleeping in that day and will probably miss the event, myself. The downside of such civil disobedience is that there is no specified minimum penalty, so if Microsoft could come up with the names and addresses of a million violators (don't think for a moment they don't have that kind of data-gathering capability) and asked the court to fine each of us $1,000, well, we'd be screwed, and Microsoft would be $1 billion richer.

But all this fails to look at the big picture from Microsoft's perspective. Redmond is fighting a war on three fronts -- desktop, mobile, and living room. They already own the desktop and want to both maintain that ownership and leverage it to gain control of the other two zones. The mobile zone means handheld devices running some version of Windows CE rather than Embedded Linux. This USB ploy is aimed most directly not at desktops, but at these mobile devices. Microsoft hates the iPod, for example, and wants to establish an alternate standard using USB and Microsoft's own Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology that it is right now trying to cram down the throats of music industry honchos. There could be other USB devices, goes the plan, but they couldn't use Microsoft DRM (hopefully, according to Redmond, by then the de facto and sole standard), so they couldn't play the music even if they could download it, which under the new USB rules, they couldn't. No downloadable devices, remember?

The same plan extends to mobile phones, where Microsoft is attempting to make Windows Media the de fault technology for watching soap operas on the subway. Again, the heart of their plan is DRM, which means "security," which means it can be enforced using the DMCA. Even convicted monopolists have intellectual property rights, remember? IP law trumps anti-trust law every time.

Pondering all this, I've come to the conclusion that Longhorn is the next great step in Microsoft domination of the market. "Security" will be the most important change to the operating system. They will increase security not to make the OS more secure, but to increase market share and revenue. That is their ultimate goal -- destroying all competition. If you look at the recent press announcements on what will and will not be in Longhorn, you will see many of the things useful to applications, users, and organizations will be delayed while the features needed to thwart Linux will get the highest priority. Behind those Longhorn announcements is a very clear business strategy: Destroy Linux and Open Source. It will be done through security where Microsoft can exploit the DMCA.

USB is the tip of the iceberg. File formats to Office applications will be locked. In time, you will not be able to share your documents with Open Office, Star Office, etc. If you reverse engineer the digital certificate, you will be violating DMCA. It can get worse -- your Office applications may require a regular exchange of digital certificates with Microsoft. If you don't buy maintenance, if you don't follow special procedures when repairing your PC, your apps could cease to work. If Microsoft suspects you are cheating them, your OS could cease to work too. Microsoft could tie down your instant messenger, your media player, etc. In the name of security, they can force their technology and business ambitions into everything you do with your PC. You will probably be allowed to continue to use iTunes and your non-Microsoft messenger, but for these apps to work, someone will be paying Microsoft money.

Now before a thousand enraged geeks write to me, let me give you their counter argument. While Microsoft is beating its brains out to destroy Linux, Linux has always had the advantage of NOT competing with Microsoft. Microsoft is assuming here that they can control the hardware standard and put Linux at a disadvantage. But how much of a disadvantage would that be? What if Linux-ready BIOS chips and Linux-ready motherboards were suddenly required? How much would that add to the cost of a Linux PC? Not much, especially if it is a basic matter of retaining the current version of USB then developing it from there. Sounds like EISA to me, which didn't last but served a purpose. The fact is that four million Linux PCs would probably cost a little more than 40 million Windows PCs, but probably not more than five percent more based on pure economics.

Microsoft may be over-estimating their power and creating the very environment that might allow a viable alternative (probably NOT Linux my gut tells me) to emerge. If this change happens, it will come to the USA last. At some point, the big emerging markets like China and India will realize they have do do something. It is simple economics to them. Start with a billion citizens or 250 million homes. Figure on 20 percent of those homes eventually getting PCs. That's 50 million boxes that can cost $750 each if Microsoft has its way, or $275 each with an Open Source alternative, saving $13.75 billion. Do you think a developing nation would make a $50 to 100 million investment in developing an Open Source computing appliance platform to save $13+ billion? I do.

So Microsoft's dream of total world domination may be riskier than they think, but that doesn't mean they won't try. And remember the carrot end of this argument is that Redmond plans to have effective control of content distribution. Having a cheap computing platform won't help if you can't play Led Zeppelin on it, they'll say.

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