VSJ – March 2002 – Sounding Board

Ken Haynes’ article last month on Microsoft’s Product Activation system set me thinking.

Ken expects PA will become a de facto standard and users will come to accept it without demur. I guess Microsoft thinks that too.

Well, maybe. Allow me an anecdote. Twenty years ago, I bought some PCs for the college at which I then worked. Microsoft’s Multiplan spreadsheet package came bundled with them. Now Multiplan was a perfectly usable, if quirky, tool. It certainly required a different mindset from its competitors like Lotus 1-2-3. But it was free, so we used it. And we taught it to the local business community, many of whom consequently bought it. The marketing people, looking at sales by region, would have seen an apparently inexplicable blip around us. Put another way, we were doing Microsoft’s advertising – as I pointed out in a letter to them, suggesting they adopt an enlightened policy on education sales. Their response was that they were much too big to worry about such trivia. (Actually, they didn’t reply at all, which boils down to the same thing.) Another MS (Marks and Spencer) has found this position less than profitable in the long run.

The ‘we’ve cornered the market, so we don’t care’ philosophy works fine if, or while, it’s true. But there’s always someone coming up on the blind side and no company can afford to wear blinkers, however jewel-encrusted. In this case, the thundering hooves belong to the Open Source community.

To mix my metaphors, there are several straws in the wind, one of which may give the MS camel severe lower back pain. First, a growing number of schools – and at least one entire education authority – have moved to Linux. Now, it’s often argued that Linux isn’t ready for the tyro’s desktop, but what if lots of school leavers are already familiar with it? After all, Unix followed a similar route from academia to commerce and my Multiplan story shows how education and marketing are linked. Second, the business community is less than gruntled at the idea of yet another upgrade, especially when it doesn’t see a need. For many, the benefits of XP don’t appear to outweigh the costs. Their only reason to upgrade is to retain support as it’s phased out for the older operating systems. And since the next two versions of XP are already on the roadmap, they wonder, ‘How long before we have to do it all over again?’

And then there’s Lindows. I know it’s vapourware now, but there should be a Beta around soon (see www.lindows.com). If it achieves its stated aims (running all Linux and ‘many popular’ MS packages, easy and flexible installation, unit cost  $99) ‘stampede’ might be an inadequate word to describe its reception.

You may say these arguments stand – or fall – if PA hadn’t been introduced. You’d be right – except that it’s another reason for people to review their plans and, maybe, change them.

Robin Jones

Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.

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