Microsoft OneCare could be the undoing

The following comment from a privacy forum was posted to a list I subscribe to and curiously follows on the heels of last week's BackSpin column on companies doing things without informing the users of their products:

"A recent Microsoft update to Windows XP, which modifies the tool that verifies the 'validity' of XP installations to ensure that they are not illicit, may itself be considered to be spyware under commonly accepted definitions."

This update to the Microsoft Genuine Advantage tool, as it is called, will apparently nag you should it decide that you don't have a kosher copy and will eventually disable certain "noncritical" features.

Many are concerned that the Microsoft Genuine Advantage "tool will now attempt to contact Microsoft over the Internet every time that you boot. . . . Perhaps it stops after some number of boots, but there's no indication of such a limit so far. The connections occur even if you do not have Windows 'automatic update' enabled."

Microsoft has admitted that Microsoft Genuine Advantage does indeed call back to the mothership and that its user license agreement failed to mention the fact. So as none of us agreed that Microsoft could do this, it sure sounds like it is guilty of distributing spyware.

If Microsoft were to require us to hang dongles off our PCs to ensure each copy of its software was legal there would be a major outcry. But isn't that what Microsoft is doing with the Microsoft Genuine Advantage tool? Hasn't it created a sort of software dongle?

This is as much part of Microsoft wanting to own the universe as it is defending its rights. We can all appreciate Microsoft's desire to stop or at least reduce piracy, but there is a level of verification that is unacceptable.

Microsoft Genuine Advantage is not the only development we should be concerned about. The company's latest foray into owning more of the universe is the Windows Live OneCare service.

OneCare is a package of Windows security and maintenance tools that costs $49.95 per year. The package will include: the company's new anti-virus system; Windows Defender, an anti-spyware package; a new firewall service; a system tune-up utility; and backup software - all products that have traditionally been supplied by other companies, such as Sophos, Norton and Symantec.

Will OneCare damage these other companies? Undoubtedly. Will Microsoft's utilities be as good as those from the competition? I doubt it.

But will corporations go for OneCare? Possibly, if it is engineered as a set of enterprise services. Will consumers go for it? Definitely. Should we be concerned? Absolutely.

Microsoft is once again constricting user choice by sheer marketing force, and when the ecology is reduced innovation will suffer. Add to that the potential danger of digital pandemics from viruses and hackers increasing by orders of magnitude and things don't look good.

You doubt that digital pandemics would be more likely? Consider that Microsoft is well known for taking shortcuts in its coding to "assist" its own legacy products (in particular, see We Are Morons: a quick look at the Win2k source). That means we are establishing a support infrastructure on top of an intrinsically compromised architecture.

There are solutions. The first is to break up Microsoft like we broke up AT&T. The least would be to split the applications groups from the operating system guys and make sure they don't talk or collaborate.

The second is for Apple to turn Mac OS X on Intel loose. Let any PC run OS X and charge, say, $49.95 for it. Wouldn't that turn the market upside down? It would take the focus off of operating systems and put more emphasis on applications, which are, after all, the stuff that makes PCs useful.

Something has got to happen, otherwise consumer and corporate computing will become a dangerous, monolithic Microsoft world. Think your job is hard now? Just wait.

Tell me what you think at backspin@gibbs.com or discuss on Gibbsblog.

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