Seeing the Light

It looks like Microsoft is finally starting to get over its initial contempt for the One Laptop Per Child project and their XO laptop. I’m not yet ready to temper my original reaction to Microsoft’s approach to international development, though.

Microsoft’s behaviour in this context has bred more than a healthy amount of distrust. Take away the shiny Gates Foundation work – it’s really nothing to do with Microsoft, anyway – and what you see is a consistent, concerted effort to protect the MS hegemony, with little or no regard to actual benefit to the user.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing. I’m no fan of Microsoft. I was once, but I haven’t been since about 1998, when the integration of ActiveX into network-enabled apps made possible such travesties as Outlook’s use of Word as an email editor. Their utter disregard for the longer-term costs to consumers was willful and determined. It came amid an outcry among geeks, who rightly pointed out that the depth of insecurity was positively sinful. When the ILOVEYOU worm came and went and still there was no attempt by Microsoft to mitigate their vulnerabilities, I made the decision never again to support their software in any mission-critical role. To this day, I treat Windows workstations as disposable, and use Linux as a bulwark against attack. (The truly security-conscious will no doubt relish the irony of that statement.)

Microsoft Windows is, in my considered, professional opinion, one of the single greatest liabilities facing businesses today. Hyperbole? Not a bit of it. It may be that your Windows PC has never been infected (neither has mine), it may be that in hypothetical cases, Linux and Apple machines are just as vulnerable as the average PC. But measured in terms of actual, right-now liability, there is no more significant vector for attack on our information systems than the typical Windows workstation. Seriously: The single most effective step you can take to reduce malware is to stop using Windows.

Microsoft – not stupid users, not lazy admins, not naive developers, nor any other red herring that’s been trotted out in the past – Microsoft has already cost businesses more in terms of time lost, resources wasted, information stolen than any other software maker. It’s an obvious, inarguable metric, and it amazes me that it’s not mentioned more often.

So how should I feel when Microsoft announces that they’ve seen the light and that they plan to support the XO laptop? Honestly, I don’t like it. I’m not going to practice Fox-style balance in this assessment, because frankly I don’t think MS has earned that right. In order to merit the benefit of the doubt, they would need to demonstrate that:

  • Their software will run reliably in locations where technical support is days away. They have trouble operating in places that have instant help-desk support.
  • Their software will not be subject to trivial exploit. Even in a flashed, read-only environment like that of the XO, I find it hard to believe that they will be immune to drive-by malware.
  • They will not charge money for the right to install it on the XO. Asking even a few dollars per copy is literally stealing from the very children they claim to be helping. Every dollar that a government gives to MS is a dollar less spent on its people. You see, the laptop is already there, already has a custom-designed free operating system and application suite on it. So MS needs to demonstrate why Windows XP improves on this offering, and why it’s worth any money at all.
  • Their software is more suited to exploration and learning than the custom-built Sugar interface, especially with regards to localisation and literacy. I would be especially interested in seeing how the collaborative application-sharing capabilities of the laptop would be expressed using the old-fashioned desktop metaphor.

I could go on, but really it all comes down to this: Microsoft once again finds itself caught by surprise by an idea that should be obvious to anyone: There are 4 billion people in the world not using Windows. With characteristically loutish clumsiness, they will elbow their way into the dialogue, and to my continuing sorrow, I and others will find ourselves once again explaining to people who should know better why using Windows in the islands might not work as well as the MS rep suggests.

And I will be the bad guy. I will be the one who lacks balance, pragmatism, understanding. I will be the one blinded by ideology and partisanship. Again.

Update: What right have I to get so snitty about this, some have asked? Why does any of this matter? Because even the most trivial problem in the islands can become insurmountable. And when someone is denied access to information for any reason, the opportunity cost is immeasurable. We really are playing with people’s futures here. The bottom line is what is best for the children using these computers, and I have seen no evidence that Microsoft is giving more than lip-service to this fundamental issue.