Conspiracy Theory, a la Microsoft

(This column first appeared in the July 30, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

The last few years have shown us paranoia is alive and well in our culture. The greater public presence of numerous militia groups such as the Freemen, movies like JFK, The Roswell Incident, and The Rock, the popularity of TV series like X-Files, the recent bombing in Atlanta (and possibly of TWA flight 800), and the confidential FBI file flap at the White House all contribute to our mass paranoia. If we look at the cause of that paranoia, much of it boils down to the belief the government (ours or someone else’s) is conspiring to enslave us by the strategic control of information. In particular, withholding or altering facts to protect and enhance the position of government (and government officials) to the detriment of free people everywhere.

While there will always be paranoia among some part of the population, the number of people concerned about the potential loss of their personal liberty and freedom is rising at an alarming rate. Perhaps even more perturbing are people who are oblivious to the whole situation.

So, what does this all have to do with the PC industry? Well, we have our own government-like entity, trying to convince us it knows what’s best for us in the long run. This entity tells us if we support it and its products, our future will be a glorious and harmonious one. In case you hadn’t guessed, this entity is none other than Microsoft.

Conspiracy Symptoms

A company wanting to monopolize a market or industry is nothing new. In the rare case where this has happened, sooner or later something has destroyed, or at least disabled, the monopoly. However, when compared to Microsoft’s rapid rise, the only other company that has really come close to the monopolistic success Microsoft is enjoying was AT&T, and the government had to intercede there.

What differentiates Microsoft and AT&T is a combination of time, technology, and ethics.

Time

Microsoft has come from nowhere in less than 20 years, while AT&T (a.k.a. Ma Bell) took its time to build a monopoly – over 75 years.

Technology

In terms of technology, Microsoft’s is far more complex and invasive than AT&T’s ever was. While you might think control of your phone lines was the ultimate in invasive technology, it’s nothing compared to the access to all your most personal digital data Microsoft has, if it chooses to access it. See more on this below.

Ethics

Finally, in terms of ethics, Microsoft frequently appears quite lacking, much more so than AT&T apparently ever was. Actions speak louder than words, and all of Microsoft’s protestations to the contrary, the company won’t let any obstacle stand in its way when driven by the megalomaniac force of Bill Gates.

Microsoft’s weapons of war include an excellent PR engine, a proven ability and desire to undermine industry standards if Microsoft doesn’t control them, more money than many small nations, the ability to run roughshod over anyone or anything perceived as a threat, and last but not least, a vision.

A vision can be a great thing if you happen to share it. However, putting them in perspective, visions of how life should be are what’s caused most (if not all) of the wars in our species’ history on this planet.

Nashville

Why the gloom and doom about Microsoft’s growing virtual monopoly? In a word, “Nashville.” While Nashville is a familiar place to fans of country music, in the future of the PC industry it’s the code name for Microsoft’s vision of what will drives the PC. Attendees of WinHEC ‘96 got a glimpse of what Nashville will become, namely a common interface to both your PC’s contents, and content on the Internet.

Nashville is supposed to blend Internet Explorer 4.0 (scheduled for an end of year beta) with Windows 95 and a new Explorer, and will most probably result in something called “Windows 97.” Throw ActiveX into the mix, and you end up with the biggest computer virus to have ever been released. And Microsoft will be laughing all the way to the bank because people will stand in line to pay real money for it.

Why is Nashville such a scary concept? Let me itemize the key concerns:

  • According to Microsoft’s WinHEC presentation, users will see their computers’ contents presented to them in the same way they see the Internet and the World Wide Web. The average PC user won’t be able to tell the difference between when they are accessing live or archived Internet information or local files.
  • Greater networking capability and support, all as transparent as possible, will be a key feature of the new Windows technology. Combined with the item above, you have security issues of unprecedented magnitude. In simplifying and unifying the Windows interface, normal users could very easily end up making their entire system’s contents public for all the world to see.
  • Even worse, if there’s no real differentiation between local and remote data, it becomes incredibly easy to accidentally save or store data in an unwanted (and possibly quite public) place.
  • Microsoft’s push for widespread use of ActiveX controls and applets is already bearing fruit, rotten fruit. ActiveX controls which require other controls are now appearing. Some of these controls (and some Web pages) appear to indiscriminately load other controls from somewhere else on the Internet. In addition to overloading your system with infrequently used code, what better way to introduce a virus?
  • With Nashville networked at all levels, and ActiveX controls being prevalent, not much prevents Microsoft (and other ruthless companies) from installing unauthorized software on any user’s system to scan its hard drives for interesting files; record user behaviors, Internet use, and even passwords; and transmit them anywhere. Yet another form of potential security breach.
  • The “theoretical” behavior recording applet I just mentioned could easily be used to create demographic information about how often a machine is used, what applications and/or games are being run, and what Web sites and news groups you are accessing. Perhaps even a list of everyone the user sends e-mail to… This demographic information could then be resold to anyone willing to pay for it, including promoters of products who arrange to have customized advertising posted on your system the next time you boot, all courtesy of yet another specialized ActiveX control downloaded transparently by your new Windows operating system, and all without your being able to do anything about it if you want to continue accessing the Internet.

Of course, the above list isn’t necessarily complete. However, ever ready to keep application competitors on their toes, Microsoft has already announced the user interface for IE 4.0 should be the design target for all developers, since IE 4.0’s GUI will become the universal look and feel for all Microsoft applications.

Ralph Grabowski, editor of the CAD++VRML newsletter (http://users.uniserve.com/~ralphg/) predicts this will irritate application developers to no end, since Microsoft has changed their UI requirements many times in the last several years, starting with urging support for OS/2’s UI, then Windows 3.x, then adherence to the Microsoft Office UI and Windows 95’s new look, and now something completely new. Each time they’ve expressed confidence that their requirements were pretty much stable and final. Yeah, right.

Parting Paranoid Ponderings

Someone recently bet I couldn’t come up with a theory combining government conspiracy with Microsoft’s capitalistic excesses. Here’s a hypothetical scenario and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not I’m being unnecessarily paranoid:

Scenario Building Blocks:

  • The U.S. government is extremely concerned about how quickly the Internet has gained popularity because the Internet offers the means to disseminate any information nearly instantly, including matters pertaining to illegal activities as well as potentially damaging and top secret documents.
  • While the U.S. government has an action plan in place to be able to shut down the Internet in case of a breach of “national security” resulting from the transmission of restricted data, they currently have no way of deleting the critical information from the systems of users around the world. (Note: The Internet could be quickly rendered inoperative by severing a small number of national “data pipes” which form the Internet’s backbone, as well as shutting down proprietary on-line services).
  • Microsoft has Internet OS technology which may rapidly become the de facto installed standard on many, if not all, computers.

Scenario Evolution:

  • The government, while publicly chastising Microsoft for monopolistic behavior, privately encourages Microsoft to continue such behavior, with the requirement Microsoft give the government access to a “backdoor” in their future operating systems, much along the lines of the Clipper encryption chip proposal that failed in Congress.
  • Microsoft, taking advantage of any opportunity to increase market share, agrees to the government deal, and proceeds to eliminate all competition.

Scenario Outcome:

  • As a result of the release of some information the government does not want widely distributed or discussed, it shuts down the Internet, uses the Microsoft OS back door to wipe all record of such information as well as anything else determined to be capable of undermining the stability of the government (Bill Clinton jokes, for example).
  • As an added measure, some disaster is fabricated and martial law is declared, and our lives are irreversibly changed. Maybe Bill Gates even joins the cabinet with a position of Secretary of Information.