SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 27 OCTOBER 2002
POP, POP... POP music
HERE'S an idea. Microsoft's account books revealed recently that the computing and software monolith has $40bn in hard cash tucked away in the vault. The company doesn't pay dividends to its shareholders. Some commentators suggest that this is because of the desire to minimise tax, while others - surprise, surprise - see it as a hallmark of a company beset by paranoia. It's not hard to see the reasons.
Microsoft is still facing sanctions from anti-trust investigations in the US and Europe. Its server software has been continuously criticised for weakness and facilitating all manner of nasty attacks. Plus, the latest versions of MS's licensing agreements have left a lot of customers with a bitter taste in their mouth.
When a company like Microsoft has blazoned its way to the top of the computing and software empire, the focus is always on staying in that position. No matter what. It's hard to imagine such a company in such a lofty position wasting time and energy being paranoid.
The official justification from the Lord of the Files, however, is that the company is a forward-looking and innovative enterprise. Having a large cash reserve is necessary when the future is so dynamic and difficult to predict. Microsoft sees its big pile as money for a rainy day. And taking a stroll through the graveyard of big ideas certainly makes most companies jumpy these days, but not when there is $40bn stuffed under the mattress. That kind of money puts a certain confidence in the stride.
Not that Microsoft worries unduly about the future. Well not worry in the sense that something unknown is going to leap out and surprise it. Having seen off attempts to split the company, which many say would have been meaningless anyway, Microsoft has brushed aside the baying hounds that sought to bring it to heel. It even had time to take a decent side swipe at the Open Source movement, in the first instance of Cold War rhetoric transferring to software. With Open Source as the commies and, guess who, as John Wayne.
So fresh from the crusades against the United Soviet Software Republic, Microsoft is concerned about morality. Trust to be more specific. The company is working on a next generation operation system called Palladium. It's still very much on the drawing board but its central objective is to put the trust back into trustworthy computing. To clean up the mess of viruses, bad software, worms, trojans, spam and a whole lot of other nasties that are afflicting the internet.
But as is usual with most of the ideas that Microsoft conjures up, a cacophony of warnings and prophesying follows in the wake. The worst goes like this: Palladium will substitute the very core of internet architecture (TCP/IP) with TCP/MS. In other words, Microsoft will hijack the protocols that the net runs on and replace it with ones of its own making.
The logic of this vision is ultimately correct, as the net would be the last and greatest empire that USS Gates could conquer. So take $40bn, a 'Back in Ten Years' dotcom industry, an otherwise engaged telco industry and a burning Bush and there's little doubt that world domination is just around the corner.
Now what has triggered the above theory is the screaming, kicking and pulling of hair that's going on in the US at the moment over copyright and what's called digital rights management. DRM is supposed to be the great barrier to the new world of plenty. A high bandwidth one where music and movies bring in unimaginable profits for the entertainment companies and a digital utopia is opened to those who can pay.
Trouble is that because of the nature and structure of the net and the ability of digitised material to copy itself at will, letting all the music and movies out loose on the net would be like committing corporate hari-kari.
So Microsoft's dalliance with trusted computing does dovetail nicely with the entertainment industry's demand for control over its material under all circumstances. Again the theory goes that Microsoft's Palladium will guarantee that nobody will be able to duplicate anything that permission hasn't been granted for. A piece of music, for example, would be encrypted at source. After payment and download, a chip in a personal computer would read the copyright data stored in the music and not let it be subsequently copied or transmitted. Any attempt to decode or interfere would, of course, be illegal. It is now.
This scenario would see Microsoft become the saviours and darlings of the entertainment industry, who could safely pack up their Washington briefcases and switch their lobbying largesse to Redmond Virginia. It's nice to have a Congress person or two in the pocket, but it won't be necessary.
And what has Microsoft to gain? Well who knows in the long run. Having an entertainment industry become obese on the orgy of online profits and dependent on one computing company for the software that makes that happen, is a very nice position to be in. President Schwarzenegger would be pleased.
But back to Microsoft's $40bn war chest and that idea. Instead of having to go through all that hassle with people moaning about their rights, and the entertainment industry moaning about their wrongs, Microsoft should go into Bill's house, lift up the mattress and take the $40bn down to the stock exchange. God knows it could do with a lift.
Then march on to the trading floor and buy up the big five record companies. Take a herbal tea break and then buy Universal, MGM and Disney. With a bit of luck and a few more accountancy 'mistakes' there might even be some change left over.
It gets it all over with in one swoop. One operating system, one software company, one internet. The public will be so grateful. No messing around with pesky browsers and email clients. No viruses, no spam, no hassle. And everything else is just music to their ears.
An entertainment industry owned and controlled by a computer software company would be just Top of the POPS or Saturday Night at the Palladium.
Now That's What I Call Software.
Article by David Weinberger in October's issue of MIT's Technology Review titled 'The Palladium Paradox'. Also link here to discussion of the piece.
Lengthy press release (August 2002) from Microsoft titled 'Microsoft Palladium: A Business Overview'.
:: TRUSTED COMPUTING
Article on Newsforge.com by Richard Stallman titled 'Can you trust your computer'. Stallman prefers to use the phrase treacherous computing rather than trusted computing. There is a discussion at the end of the article with over 200 comments so far.