Never mind whether Microsoft actually threatened to cut off Netscape’s air supply, or whether it sneakily ensures that its own software applications work better with Windows than any other company’s programs do, or even if it illegally strong-armed computer manufacturers into including Internet Explorer on new computers. That’s all window dressing, so to speak. I got a fresh view of why Microsoft bugs me a couple of days ago, after I bought a new laptop.
The computer, a Sony Vaio 505TR, is the most beautiful high-tech gadget I’ve ever owned — straight out of my science-fiction dreams, an ultraslim burnished silver objet d’techno-art. I’ll come clean: One of the reasons I bought this model was that I knew that Linux hackers were in love with it; reportedly, it is completely compatible with GNU/Linux, from modem to power management to CD-ROM drive. But all that free-software compatibility, while nice, is nothing compared to the sheer joy I feel every time I glance at this finely engineered marvel. I just want to hug it.
The impulse to hug, however, quickly vanished when I turned on my Vaio. What was the very first thing I was forced to do with my new computer? If you guessed “kowtow to Redmond” you’ve just won yourself a new mousepad. Because before I could so much as twiddle on the touchpad, I had to enter the Windows 98 “Certificate of Authenticity” Product Key — 30 letters and numbers proving that I had the right to start using the computer I had just bought.
Excuse me? Who owns this computer? Me, or Microsoft? I felt insulted, and then angry. Now, I’m aware that technically adept readers will suggest that before powering on, I should have inserted a boot-up floppy or bootable CD-ROM disk, and wiped the hard drive clean before installing a different OS. But I kind of wanted to take a look around — get a glimpse of what software had been installed, find out how fast the processor cranked, take the touchpad for a spin, etc. — before performing major surgery. Instead, I got a bald reminder of just who holds the reins of power in my computer. It’s not me, certainly, not even the computer maker, but the operating system manufacturer.
To the non-technical user, the operating system and the computer may seem one and the same. You buy the computer, it has Windows installed, and you just have to unlock it before you can enter. To me it seemed as if I’d bought a house and the electrical system was demanding to see my deed of ownership before I could enter the door. Basically, it was flat-out rude.
Moments later, Windows prompted me to register online. If I did so, I could get set up for online OS updates without having to clumsily search out and install various patches. Sounded like a reasonable thing to do, so I agreed. But after having agreed, Microsoft informed me that all the personal information I was about to input would be made available to Microsoft “and its affiliates.”
No “check this box if you don’t want your personal information available.” Nope — to get the online software updates, you’ve gotta give up the personal info — that was the quid pro quo, take it or leave it. Now, I’m not opposed to giving something up in return for a benefit gained — but again, this was just plain rude. Microsoft talks a great deal about wanting to serve its consumers — but this consumer just felt like he’d been slapped in the face twice, within minutes of turning on his new computer. A company under as much pressure from its competitors, not to mention the federal government, ought to know better. It ought to be bending over to make my first experience with its software pleasurable, instead of painful.
So, I’ll be installing Linux as fast I can — even though, for my primarily word-processing purposes, Microsoft Word, running on Windows, is hands-down a better experience than any Linux-based operating system can yet offer me. There will be bugs, all kinds of unforeseen complexities, a steep learning curve and plenty of geeky frustration, but through it all I’ll just remember the words that scrolled onto my monitor the first time I successfully installed the Debian GNU/Linux kernel:
Bill? Are you listening?