THE PROBLEM with the government's prosecution of Microsoft is that all of the company's victims were corporate giants like America Online, Netscape, and Sun Microsystems. Antitrust law seems mostly designed to protect the monopolist's business competitors. But what about us, the lowly end-users? What about small companies that have nothing to do with Microsoft except using its products?
Regardless of what happens to Microsoft's poor competitors, everybody who uses Microsoft software is likely to feel the company's tightening grip on their computers more acutely in the coming years. Those who are paranoid about Bill's intentions—and even some who are not—see the company's business model evolving in a manner that may make it abundantly clear how we pay a price for Microsoft's monopoly.
Case in point is Windows XP, the new version of the company's Windows operating system, which will be shipped in October with a marketing budget in the "hundreds of millions of dollars" (much more than the company spent on the inescapable Windows 95). Most of the attention surrounding XP and antitrust issues has been directed, as usual, at threats to Microsoft's competitors: specifically, the integration of "instant messaging" software (which threatens AOL) and a media player (which threatens RealNetworks). But the more serious long-term threat to ordinary computer users may lie in another feature called "product activation," which implants a kind of self-destruct mechanism inside the operating system, giving Microsoft the ability to disable your software—and your PC.
With product activation, you no longer simply load the software into your computer and start wallowing in spreadsheet heaven. Instead, you must contact Microsoft, transmitting to the company some garbled information about your computer and its components. Microsoft then "activates" your operating system for use. If you do not activate, the software shuts down. You get an initial grace period of 30 days.
Microsoft calls the activation scheme an anti-piracy technique. It's designed to combat "softlifting"—the sharing of a single software copy among multiple PCs when only one license has been purchased. "This form of piracy is prevalent," Microsoft says on its Web site. In essence, activation ties a particular copy of Windows to a particular PC, and any attempt to load the same copy onto a second machine will be detected by the software, which will then fail to work.
Of course, a company with $25 billion in annual revenues and profit margins of 40 percent wouldn't seem to be suffering too badly from people ripping off its products. But Microsoft says it's protecting its intellectual property rights. "Over time, reduced piracy means that the software industry can invest more in product development, quality, and support," the company argues.
DESPITE THESE promised benefits, product activation has not been greeted warmly. Especially irate are serious geeks and those who run computer systems for small and medium-sized companies. "Microsoft is risking a public relations nightmare," wrote Ed Bott, a columnist for TechRepublic, a Web site for infotech professionals. TechRepublic members recently flooded the site's discussion board with bile over product activation. "[This] could finally spur the backlash that Microsoft fears most," wrote one computer consultant from Virginia. Even the second-most powerful man in the personal computer business (well, maybe), The Wall Street Journal's Personal Technology columnist Walter Mossberg, wrote a column this month warning consumers about the "rude surprise" that awaits them with XP activation. "I am not making this up," he assured readers, in reference to Microsoft's new "draconian" measures.
Should you have occasion to load up a copy of XP, you might well wonder what all the fuss is about. We installed a prerelease version here at the Seattle Weekly offices, and the process was over in an instant—literally. It was so fast it was almost spooky. (No doubt it helps to have a T1 line.) We simply checked a button selecting online activation, hit enter, and were immediately informed that activation was complete. A "hash" of data about our computer hardware had been transmitted to Microsoft, and an activating message had been transmitted back to XP.
But most PC experts are concerned less with the initial activation than with Microsoft's continued control. The software is programmed to work only with a particular computer configuration. "Those who upgrade their PC's hardware substantially may be asked to reactivate," Microsoft says.
For IT guys and gals, who spend their entire days jiggering multiple machines—or even for ordinary folks adding additional drives and memory—this could be a big-time headache. "We're always swapping monitors, changing parts. . . . Why should we waste time on the phone, calling Microsoft for permission to work on our own PCs?" wonders Rick Glass, a systems coordinator in San Joaquin County, Calif., writing on a ZDNet message board. Since Microsoft has left it unclear what exactly might prompt the need to reactivate, PC experts worry that the software could unexpectedly detect a hardware "offense" and shut down during critical moments.
What's more, every time there's a need to reinstall Windows, permission will have to be sought by phone from Microsoft. That's particularly galling to some IT professionals, who frequently deal with complicated problems in Microsoft software for which the only time-efficient solution is just to install Windows again. "You're going to have to justify, 'This is what happened,'" says Jonmichael P. Montieth, information service director for Parker Smith & Feek, an insurance broker in Bellevue. "It is a major annoyance to us."
Microsoft insists that reactivation will be painless and that no one will be subjected to an inquisition. The company is also attempting to clarify what hardware changes will and won't require clearance.
Perhaps more ominous (except if you're a Microsoft shareholder) is the prospect that Microsoft could start using the activation process to squeeze more money out of its monopoly business. Right now, you have a choice of whether or not to upgrade to Microsoft's "new and improved" software programs, such as Windows XP and Office XP. We here at the Weekly, for example, are still using Windows 98. But in the future, as more customers drift into the XP world, Microsoft will have the capability to cease new activations whenever it wants, thereby compelling the expensive "upgrade" that is optional today. Of course, you won't have to upgrade. You could always use a typewriter and abacus.