December 12, 2006

Microsoft desperately wants my love -- and yours

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I spent December seventh, eighth, and ninth in Seattle as Microsoft's guest. Microsoft flew me there from Florida at its expense, put me up in a nice hotel, provided decent food, and comped me and four other invitees to this "special conference" with presentations about the marvels of Vista and other recent or upcoming Microsoft products. They didn't quite play the old Beatles song "Love Me Do" in the background, but it was the event's unstated theme. And, as a free bonus, Microsoft gave me a free Zune to pass on to a developer who wants to put Linux on it or make a utility that will allow it to interact with a PC running Linux.

I went to work before the appetizers were served at the opening supper by asking event organizer Nick White (whose business card describes him as "Product Manager, Windows Marketing Communications") why I should trust a company whose CEO consistently threatens to sue me and other Linux users over unspecified patent violations.

"That's history," Nick said. "We're trying to move forward."

"I was referring to some comments Steve Ballmer made just a week or two ago," I said.

"Well, that's not really anything I can comment on," he replied. "I'm a product marketing guy."

This was the kind of answer I got to all the hard questions I asked, including several suggested by Pamela Jones of Groklaw. None of the Microsoft people I met had anything to say about their deal with Novell, working with the Open Document Format (ODF), acceptance of the GNU General Public License (GPL) as a legitimate software license, how DRM built into Vista may anger users, or other topics I thought might interest you.

Let me backtrack a little on that last statement: Tyler Welch, a Zune marketing guy, seemed to understand that there's a delicate balance between satisfying the movie and music companies enough that they'll sell content for online devices and giving customers the unrestricted use and copying freedoms they demand. And instead of giving some sort of flip or PR-speak canned response, he admitted that he had no ready way to solve the conflict between these competing constituencies and that this is something it's going to take a long time to work out.

The wonders of the Microsoft Home of the Future

Junket participants included Gina Trapani of Lifehacker and Ken Kurokawa of the CCIA. Mike Magee of the Inquirer couldn't make it and sent his 19-year-old son in his place. There was also an older gentleman from Boston who runs a tech blog of some sort whose name I didn't write down. And me.

Supposedly, a total of 10 people were invited, specifically chosen because they were not friendly toward Microsoft. (Microsoft reps said they invited Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of eWeek, but Vaughan-Nichols told me he never got an invitation.)

In any case, there were five participants. And our first formal event, the morning after the introductory supper, was a tour of the Microsoft Home of the Future -- under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

The young gent from the Inquirer wouldn't sign the NDA, so he didn't take the tour. Since I wanted to immerse myself in the fullness of the Microsoft experience I signed it and took the tour. Funny thing: I didn't see any really new technology that warranted an NDA. "But you've never seen all that technology put together like that, have you?" Asked/stated a Microsoft marketer. No, I replied, I hadn't. But I've seen the same or similar technologies used or speculated about in many other contexts, usually less-glowing ones.

The examples that popped into my mind most during the NDA tour were Marshall Brain's online books Robotic Nation and Manna. Bits of Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 novel Player Piano also boiled up from my memory.

Microsoft has a positive take on many of these technologies and how they can work together to make our lives different in the future, but since it won't allow me to share its optimism with you, Brain and Vonnegut's dystopian visions will have to do.

Security is #1! Yay, security!

Yes, Microsoft does have a security program manager. His name is Michael Howard. He has a blog. He writes books and articles. He says that even with many, many eyes security bugs are not shallow, and that every product touched by Microsoft's Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) "has fewer security defects. Period. And that certainly makes it worth pursuing."

A cynic might wonder why, since Howard has been a Microsoft employee for a good number of years, there have been so many security problems with the company's software in the past. The answer (or at least the Microsoft PR-approved answer) seemed to be that The Bosses have now converted to the Security Religion and everything is different these days. Howard claimed IIS is now more secure than Apache (as witnessed by number of patches, a measure with which many might quarrel) and Vista is the most secure version of Windows ever, so secure that you may not even need antivirus software for it.

And with that, let's segue to Vista itself.

Rah, rah, Vista! Go, Vista, go!

Vista is great. Vista will capture and edit high definition video. Vista will make your computing experience so much better than it is now that your heart will sing and skies over your computer will always be blue and sunny.

Lifehacker's Gina inconveniently pointed out that many of the Vista so-called innovations have been available in Mac OS X for a good while, but she was carrying an Apple laptop so her viewpoint was obviously suspect.

I asked whether Vista's hardware hunger, combined with the hardware hunger of the video editing software I use (my only personal use of Windows is video editing) might not force me to make a major investment in new hardware to run Vista. In fact, I wondered aloud, might not the extra hardware investment I'd need to run Sony Vegas or other pro-level video editing software on Windows suddenly make Apple hardware cheaper than hardware that could run Vista for video editing?

I got no good answers. Shanen Boettcher -- title on business card: General Manager PMG Future (LH) -- said maybe, maybe not, surely things would get better once applications "are optimized for Vista."

Poor Boettcher's main job with this group, though, was to help us make sense of the five versions of Vista, six if you include the Starter Edition available only in "emerging markets," that will soon be available, all at different prices, for different purposes.

I am still confused about why it offers so many choices. Apparently the only one useful for someone who uses both media-type apps and business apps is the top-priced "Ultimate" version. Even then, if you modify your computer often, you may have trouble using any version of Vista for long, because Vista incorporates a juiced-up version of the activation utility that already plagues XP.

Microsoft seems to have backed down on some of the dumber Vista license terms but isn't making any provision for the growing number of us who run multiple OSes on a single computer through virtualization, which is still a sticking point for many leading-edge computer users.

For many years I have maintained that Windows is too geeky for me; that as a mere user it is easier and safer for me to stick with Linux. Now, with Vista weighed down by all these choices, license confusions, and installation restrictions, Mac OS X (with its simple "Server" or "Desktop" choice) is looking more and more attractive for sophisticated video editing -- and, of course, Linux does everything else I need a computer to do.

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I walked into this series of marketing sessions with an open mind about Vista, expecting it to be neither a world-beater nor worse than previous Windows versions. I walked out thinking it's something I absolutely, totally don't want on any computer I own unless I am doing cross-OS compatibility tests that require me to deal with the Vista licensing maze. Vista's visual desktop effects are cute, but I am not a cute-desktop guy; my computers are work tools and my monitors tend to be covered with applications. The only time I see a so-called "desktop" is when I boot up, and only for a few seconds even then.

I can easily see myself living happily without Vista in my life. But hey! That's just me. You may, as one of Microsoft's competitors likes to say, "think different."

Games on Vista

I tuned out the game-related stuff. I'm not a computer gamer. I figure I already spend more time staring at a monitor for work purposes than is healthy for me. I don't need to become a game addict and spend even more hours in front of a computer or game console. But for those interested in computer games, I'm sure Vista is wonderful. I'm sure XBox is great, too. A Microsoft person said so.

Research and innovation

Behrooz Chitsaz of Microsoft Research gave an interesting little talk about what his part of Microsoft is up to. I found the slides he used for a presentation in 2004 online in the form of a PowerPoint file I viewed somewhat haltingly in There was a little new stuff in the presentation I saw in person. Upshot of his talk: Microsoft research is open, open open, sharing, sharing, sharing.

I asked about charges leveled recently on Slashdot about how Microsoft Research's primary purpose often seemed to be producing patents the company could use as weapons against competitors. Chitsaz's answer was, "The lawyers make all the patent decisions."

Chitsaz was obviously aware of the Slashdot discussion I mentioned. And he kept stressing how Microsoft made their patents "open to everyone." When I asked about use of Microsoft innovations in GPL code, he shrugged and smiled. No words. I asked whether software patents in general were a good idea. Again, no words, but marketer Nick White spoke up and said we should stick to the topics at hand.

Nick was very good at cutting off conversations, usually initiated by me, that veered into uncomfortable territory. They were always off-topic or taking up valuable time or something. And another marketing person said, after another one of my attempts to ask hard questions, "We're product marketing people. We don't know about any of that." Funny. That's more or less what Nick told me at the opening supper in response to the very first questions I asked. Perhaps it's a scripted line.

Then we met Blaise Aguera y Arcas, who joined Microsoft earlier this year when they acquired his startup company, Seadragon. He first spoke up when I asked why Microsoft's Virtual Earth had been made totally dependent on DirectX instead of using OpenGL or another cross-platform alternative, and was therefore useless to anyone not running Windows (and, as it turned out, Explorer as well).

Alex Daley, a marketing type associated with Virtual Earth, started to say only DirectX had the necessary features when Blaise broke in and said that OpenGL could have done just as well.

Blaise was obviously not a fully-assimilated Microsoftie. He spoke openly about how he and the other Seadragon team members had to "scrub" GPLed code (and JPEG2000) from its work after the acquisition. Of all the presenters, he was the only one whose brain I wanted to pick more. He is a very smart guy. Check his work on PhotoSynth. Amazing stuff. Too bad it's only available to Windows/Explorer users.

A company adrift

I came away with a sense that Microsoft doesn't currently have a clear sense of what Microsoft should be and where Microsoft should be going. I had time to buttonhole a number of employees who were not part of the planned presentations. The "Microsoft Campus" is not closed off from the world with gates and guards, but is a series of bland office buildings on ordinary public streets, so it was not hard to find employees I could question by buttonholing people near the entrances to several buildings, especially the company store (an employee-only facility where they sell Microsoft software at academic prices and Microsoft-branded hardware at a deep discount).

While I do not want to quote any Microsoft employees by name here -- they really weren't supposed to talk to me -- I picked up a sense that Ballmer is not universally loved, and that at least a significant minority (if not a majority) of actual software developers in the company are hoping he retires soon and that Ray Ozzie takes over. And if not Ozzie, at least someone who doesn't act as if the whole rest of the world can be divided into two groups: Microsoft customers and those who thwart Microsoft's plans.

There are people who love Microsoft. The company has an active Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program that encourages outside volunteers to help other users. Indeed, Terri Stratton, who helped organize this junket, was a volunteer for some years before she was hired by Microsoft as publisher and news editor for the Microsoft-sponsored Web site.

But there are also many people who don't like Microsoft. Some dislike the company because of its poor record on software security (and, all too often, poor software quality in general), some dislike its business practices, and others have other reasons. You might even go so far as to say that many computer users merely tolerate Microsoft even as they use its products, and that some of the company's customers might even revile it but feel they have no choice besides Microsoft's software.

Imagine working for a company that is tolerated, at best, in many social circles. Imagine being a computer science graduate, going to a class reunion, telling people you work for Microsoft, and watching your former classmates slowly back away as if you'd just told them you had a venereal disease.

Microsoft is not short of smart, hard-working employees. I'm sure that in many ways it's a great place to work. I also think, from what I heard during my visit and what other Microsoft employees and customers have told me at other times, that it has degenerated into a series of disconnected fiefdoms that aren't all moving in the same direction.

This sort of corporate disorganization might be expected in a fast-moving startup with 50 employees, but in a mature company with more than 70,000 people on its payroll it is not acceptable. A company as large as Microsoft needs professional managers at the top who act like professional managers and don't have embarrassing monkey dance videos floating around the Internet.

On the interoperability front, Microsoft seems to have made some progress in recent years, but it's often two steps forward and three steps back. For every bit of grudging Microsoft acceptance that some enterprise customers are going to use both Windows and Linux and want to do so as painlessly as possible, there's a Novell patent agreement that inspires angry protests.

I would like to see Microsoft adhere to the principles Bruce Perens laid out on his site back in 2002. If it wants to limit some of its new Web-oriented technology, including Virtual Earth and PhotoSynth, to people who use Microsoft operating systems and browsers, that's its business.

Google and others have (or will soon have) similar products that can be used by the rest of us. As long as Microsoft works within Perens' Sincere Choice framework -- which is certainly not onerous, and is effectively followed by most software companies whether they know it or not -- we might eventually consider Microsoft a decent corporate IT citizen.

This choice is up to Microsoft, and if it decides to be sincere about it, either under current management or after the company is turned over to a new, more enlightened group at the top, I'm sure it will go a long way toward dispelling the anger so many past Microsoft actions have generated.

Finally, the Zune giveaway

I took the free trip (and a gift basket) out of curiosity. I had never been on a corporate-paid press junket before, and I wanted to see what it was like. Think of it as an experience similar to one of those "free vacation trip if you listen to our time-share condo sales pitch" deals. I took the free trip and in return I listened to the pitch, which I did not find persuasive.

The $250 (list price) Zune was too much. I wasn't going to take it at first. Then Microsoft marketer Tyler Welch told us what he really wanted was feedback, not just to give us a freebie; that he wanted us to let him know what we thought of the Zune and what we thought our readers would think of it. I piped up and said something along the lines of, "If it's going to be popular with my audience you'll see projects on to either run Linux on the Zune or to use it with a Linux PC."

I used "ipod" as a search term on and got 136 results. A similar search for "zune" gave me zero results. This was on December 9, 2006; the exact numbers may have changed since then. Even if they have, it's obvious that plenty of developers have written open source software (including several Linux installers)for the iPod, but hardly anyone has bothered to write open source software for the Zune.

So here's the deal: If you want to either install Linux on a Zune or write a utility to make a Zune Linux-compatible, email and tell us why we should give this free Zune to you. The person we deem most likely to put it to good use, based on previous development track record and all-around desire, will get this Zune to have, hold, use as a development platform, and otherwise do with as he or she wishes.

All we ask in return is a reasonable description of the hacking effort -- successful or not -- within a reasonable time. Call it 90 days after you receive it. And to keep the "Who gets it?" question from going on forever, we'll close the entry period on December 22 and announce our decision on December 26, the day after Christmas, then mail it out on or about January 2nd, 2007, after the Christmas shipping (and return) rush has died down.

The only limitations we're imposing are:

  • You must be in a country where you can receive postal-mailed packages from the US.
  • If there are customs hassles or duties, you must take care of them at your end.

So go ahead and send those emails. We'll be waiting for them!


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