Unintended Consequences

In which I dare to dip a toe into the murky waters that surround the subject of… Microsoft.  But hey, no zealotry here, one way or the other.

Though I can find no source for it, I have a feeling it was Larry Niven who wrote this (probably for one of his characters): “Why would anyone want to conquer the world?  They’d have to run it…”  If you know the actual source, let me know.  Any road up[1], I have no particular hatred or enthusiasm for That Company In Redmond.  They’re a fact of life, like the lousy weather this summer, or the way gravity pulls me towards the centre of the planet.  One just deals with it.

But I do think that some of their top executives, in their fervour to dominate the world’s computers, have missed an Unintended Consequence.  They have, in effect, won that domination as far as Home Computers are concerned.  Okay, great, fine, well done Mr Gates and the boys.  But with great power, comes great responsibility (as some arachnid’s Uncle once said).

In the UK we have an interesting approach to vital services.  The Conservative governments of the 80s and early 90s privatised many of them; water, electricity, phones, etc, but appointed ombudmen to oversee them.  Thus you have private companies operating within government-set regulations, so water companies (for example) can’t arbitrarily disconnect people.  The idea seems to be that it’s okay to make money, as long as you face up to your responsibilities.

Being a wooly-minded liberal[2] Guardian reader, I’m not sure I agree with that, but let’s take it as a model and run with it, see where it goes.  First, I’ll posit that in your average Western society, computing, and Internet connectivity, should be considered alongside phone service; not an absolute necessity of life, perhaps, but pretty basic and to be expected.  If Microsoft want to make money from it, so be it, but they have to follow the rules.  And the rules are where it bites, or should bite.  If your product isn’t up to scratch, there should be redress.  If you provide something which exposes people to hazards (of whatever kind), you carry some liability.  If your product contains defects, you have to be held to that.  You took money for that product; people have a right to expect that it operate.  Do it well, you’ll be rich forever.  But you can’t do it badly and expect to get away with it indefinitely.  Running the world is difficult, sure; it’s insanely complex, has a zillion different groups with different agendas and you can’t please all of the people all of the time.  But Mr Gates, what did you expect?

Is this an anti-MS rant?  No.  Like I said, I have no agenda one way or the other.  There are five computers in this house, and all but one run XP.  I’d hold Apple to the same standards, or Linux vendors if they had the same dominant market position.  But they don’t, and there’s a get-out.

Here’s a prediction; shrink-wrap license agreements for software won’t last as a protection any more than the equivalent would for a car.  Yes, the problems with Windows are due to Bad People who unleash Nasty Things on the web.  That’s the world as it is; it would be nice if things were different, but they’re not, and software that is sold today should be sold in that context, not as though the world was basically nice and fluffy and your software isn’t to blame if Bad People exploit holes in it.  Hey, Microsoft, you won; you control it all.  Now you have to run it.  We’re waiting.

[1] As we say Up North here in the UK; means “anyway”.
[2] Liberal doesn’t mean the same thing in the UK as it does in the USA, ok?

2 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences

  1. Agreed

    This is an all too familiar story these days. Companies make out they’re selling a perfect product when in fact it’s completely shot. It’s just shortsightedness on most companies parts as once the consumer realises they’ve been had, they never return.

    Short term profit followed by long term loss. Just look at McDonalds now!

    Microsoft on the otherhand, because of their market strangle-hold, don’t have this long term problem. They have the problem of “How do I sell a secretary a new version of Word when her/his old one works fine?” Insert bugs here?

    • Re: Agreed

      Actually, I think they have a problem. When your product is so dominant that it becomes a necessity (at whatever level)… then governments start to regulate it. It becomes too vital to be left to purely business interests. A different problem altogether.

      And I don’t think they ever deliberately insert bugs – they are too large an organization to keep that sort of strategy working. You have to (a) be the CIA and (b) be in a movie for large-scale conspiracies to work. I just think it’s an Unintended Consequence of striving to add features without thinking them through. On the other hand, if SMTP had been thought though in sufficient detail, we wouldn’t have a SPAM problem, so it’s not just an MS-specific thing.


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