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Fear and loathing in Redmond

New Windows service packs scare me. The last one for XP knackered quite a few people’s computers, until the ‘a’ variant arrived. This was supposedly brought out to fulfil a court ruling that Microsoft should remove its own version of the Java Virtual Machine and replace it with Sun’s in future versions of Windows. But it also had the convenient side effect that it didn’t knacker as many computers as the original version. Fortunately for me, my natural cowardice kept me well away from Windows XP SP1, and so my PC endured unscathed. Only months after SP1a arrived did I pluck up the courage to install it, once I’d watched enough colleagues and friends be my guinea pigs.

A similar shenanigans is happening all over again with SP2. A huge list of applications which don’t work properly once SP2 has been applied is already available (see this page and this page for more details). The list even includes enterprise stalwarts such as Norton Antivirus Corporate Edition. Most of the problems are due to the new firewall in SP2 being on by default, and the fact that this service pack enables the ‘NX bit’ in AMD64 processors. These are both intended to protect your PC from Trojans, viruses and hackers, or other undesirable code. But they have the added bonus of protecting you from many of the things you actually do want to do with your computer. Whether you like it or not, you’ll be forced to open up ports in the built-in firewall, and add applications to the list of trusted executables in the NX-bit whitelist on your Athlon 64. That’s the price you’ll have to pay for the added security Microsoft claims for SP2.

"Aside from SP2, he’s just about to release another batch of extremely good software for nothing – Windows Media Player 10"

Despite the slow release of the service pack to the public, it has been zinging round Bit Torrent for some time. Microsoft has tried to stomp on the P2P networks, threatening to take down at least two websites offering the Torrent, including that of Downhill Battle who claimed to be trying to do Microsoft a favour. You won’t find SP2 on any magazine cover discs, either, as for at least a year Microsoft has followed a policy that you can only download Microsoft code from Microsoft’s own websites. So mainstream users will have to wait until it appears on Windows Update, or brave the 272MB download that is the corporate version. For modem users, Microsoft is planning also to release SP2 in a free Security Update CD, which it did have planned for SP1 but pulled at the last minute. However, details of when (and if) that will arrive are still unclear.

Microsoft has long had a very ambivalent attitude to giving away code. Bill Gates has personally always hated the idea. In his infamous 1976 ‘Open Letter to Hobbyists’ (see Blinkenlights.com for the full text), the young Gates harangued computing enthusiasts for stealing his and Paul Allen’s Altair BASIC software. It’s a very eye-opening piece of Bill biography. The letter sets up a theme which has made Microsoft great and yet is probably also what has instilled so much hatred for the company.

But Bill also loves free software. Aside from SP2, he’s just about to release another batch of extremely good software for nothing – Windows Media Player 10. This is a very significant release. Not only does it clean up and streamline the WMP interface, but it also unleashes the Janus Digital Rights Management system which is the next step towards Microsoft’s intellectual property nirvana (which I touched upon a couple of months ago here on Bit-tech - see this column). So another generation of WMP takes its place alongside Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Moviemaker 2, and numerous other freebies Microsoft has put into the market to destroy the competition and take full advantage of its huge financial superiority over every single other software company.

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James Morris


This is all very hypocritical. On the one hand Gates has always said you can’t give away good software for free, because without recompense it would be impossible to produce quality code in the first place. But on the other hand, his company regularly gives away good software for free. In 1976, Bill whined about not being able to make enough money out of his own products because people were using them without paying. How different is it that Netscape went belly up because Microsoft was giving away IE, or that alternative media playing software will be having an increasingly tough time competing against the free WMP 10? This will be particularly compounded by the fact that only a limited number of players can even play the current DRM-encrypted WMA files as provided by online music shops like Napster. Even fewer of them can burn these files to CD or copy them to your portable player.

"Microsoft only ever gives away software when it expects to get something much larger in return for the effort"

This is likely to be a growing problem. Microsoft reportedly has 27 different vendors lined up for the new Market Place feature which replaces WMP version 9’s Premium Content section in version 10. The company is angling to be the provider of the key formats used in the paid-for distribution of media over the Internet. Providing a powerful player for nothing is key to this strategy. Similarly, Windows Movie Maker 2 is a great piece of video editing software, but you can’t use it to burn to VideoCD or DVD. Instead, you must use HighMAT, a Microsoft CD format the company is pushing to give it another inroad into the lucrative consumer electronics market.

Unlike the open source movement, Microsoft only ever gives away software when it expects to get something much larger in return for the effort. Yes, SP2 will protect all those suffering Windows XP users like my 80-year-old dad who regularly falls foul of the security holes in Microsoft’s Swiss Cheese operating system. But it also helps ensure these people continue to run Windows XP. SP2 also enforces a security policy third-party vendors will have to comply with if they want to remain in business, because mainstream users like my dad will not be opening up ports on their new firewall. Perhaps the price you always pay for security is liberty. Fortunately for my dad, he still uses a modem, so he won’t be getting SP2 anytime soon.