On the Soapbox

Outsourcing Labor Protests

Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Keywords: Economics

It warms my heart to see just how much vitality there is in market economics: Outsourcing the Picket Line (from the Washington Post)

Where did WGA Notifications go?

Monday, July 16, 2007
Keywords: Technology

Last Thursday, as I was checking something on Microsoft Update, I noticed that I was no longer being offered WGA Notifications in the critical updates list. That's very odd, I thought. I didn't tell MU to hide the item, nor have I installed it. I switched to another computer and fired up Microsoft Update. Still nothing. In the past, Microsoft has withheld certain updates from certain locales (in fact, WGAN itself was rolled out at different times in different regions), so I wondered if, for some reason, Microsoft had disabled the offering of WGAN to certain groups of users. To check for that, I searched the update catalog for WGAN by name and by the KB number. Nothing. It wasn't all that long ago when I last saw WGAN being listed in the update catalog. Of course, people can still find it at its MSKB article and in the Microsoft Download Center, but it's through Automatic Updates and Microsoft Update that Microsoft shovels WGAN onto people's computers, and it's no longer there.

Of course, I don't care much about WGAN, nor do I care much about whether or not Microsoft is shoveling it onto people's computers. But I was interested to see what the reaction was online, so I looked around. Nothing. Nothing? Yes, I meant nothing. Not even on the once-contentious talk page of the WGA Wikipedia entry. Ever since Thursday, I've searched Google Blog Search and Technorati to see what people had to say about it. And here's the amusing thing: all my searches for recent posts about WGA Notifications turned up only rants and tirades against how evil WGAN is, about how evil Windows is, about how evil Microsoft is (though sadly, none of them recognized Jobs' much more pronounced monopolistic ambitions), etc., etc. Not that I have much love for WGAN either, but it struck me as rather odd (and amusing) that all these people ranting about how annoyed they are at WGAN never picked up on the fact that for the past several days, WGAN was missing from its primary distribution channel!

So what happened? I have no idea. Perhaps they temporarily pulled it in preparation for an update? But it is very unlike them to retract downloads prior to an update. Or have they finally recognized the cost of the bad PR and are quietly shelving it? Or is this just a temporary glitch in Microsoft Update? Guess we'll find out in time...

I really should use the MSKB more...

Saturday, July 7, 2007
Keywords: Technology

Normally, when I run into some problem or some sort of quirky behavior with some piece of software, I'll just curse at it, get frustrated, get annoyed, and then accept that it's just how it is. Unless the problem is fairly disruptive, blatantly a bug, or obviously something that I can fix myself, I usually don't give it much thought after the obligatory round of grumbling.

But every now and then, I do get frustrated enough at the minor quirks that I end up trying to fix it, and if it's a problem with Windows, then that means a trip to the Microsoft Knowledge Base (MSKB). It's a treasure trove, and over the years, I have almost always found a KB article that addresses the exact issue that I experienced. Yet, despite this, I have never have gotten into the habit of using MSKB. Whenever I encounter a minor quirk, I tend to automatically accept it as just a part of life, and it often doesn't even occur to me that there may be a fix for this minor thing, and worst of all, this dismissal happens automatically, without me even realizing it.

Anyway, to save power and to reduce the amount of heat produced, I often put my laptop in a sleep mode if I'm not using it for an extended period of time. The problem with this is that every time the laptop comes out of sleep, the network connection sometimes behaves strangely for a short while (less than a minute), and once I bring the laptop out of sleep, I can't put it back to sleep immediately. I have to wait a little bit before I can do that. And all this time, it never occurred to me that this is a problem that could be fixed; I had just thought that this was a natural and normal part of sleeping and waking the laptop and that perhaps the OS needs to perform some tasks after being reactivated from sleep. Well, as it turns out, KB308467 addresses this exact issue. Offers an explanation of why it happens and how to work around it. And now, I can sleep and wake my laptop without any quirky network behavior and the process is now virtually instantaneous: takes about a second to put it to sleep and about a second to wake it up. Neat, huh?

And the problem of some optical drives mysteriously entering PIO mode? Although I've had this happen to me only once, I've seen this happen to other people back when I used to moderate an optical drive forum. We never thought much of it since it was a relatively rare thing. Turns out there's a fix for that too from the MSKB...

This entry was edited on 2007/07/07 at 14:01:14 GMT -0400.

Google, a.k.a., Microsoft v2

Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Keywords: Technology

During the Microsoft antitrust battle of the 1990's, I recall Microsoft making the point that the computer industry was volatile and that monopolies are always at risk of naturally collapsing. Their best example was IBM, which was itself involved in a long, prolonged antitrust battle in the 1980's. Except for the resources wasted in the courtroom, nothing came out of those antitrust proceedings, but nothing needed to: IBM's monopoly had naturally collapsed, largely thanks to Microsoft.

Microsoft at the time of its own antitrust trial was fond of portraying its relationship with IBM as one of a young, relatively small upstart negotiating its way through a world dominated by a large, mature, and well-established corporation. And although the relationship between the two in the early 90's were terrible, the two never really directly competed. IBM did release OS/2, but OS/2's prominence was very limited and, for the most part, the two never directly battled. Direct competition came not from Microsoft, but from companies like Compaq, who were making IBM clones. After all, IBM was primarily a hardware company, and Microsoft was primarily a software company. But if they did not directly compete, why do people credit Microsoft with IBM's demise, and why did Microsoft view itself as a sort of rival to IBM?

Although the end of IBM's reign came directly from the rise of the ironically-termed "IBM-compatible PC", what had really happened was a platform shift. The hardware was no longer the platform of primary importance; this role had shifted to the operating system. In other words, it was no longer important to buy a computer bearing the IBM brand. Any computer with any brand would do, as long as it ran DOS or Windows, because it's on DOS and Windows that everyone's applications ran on. Contrast that with Apple computers, from the Apple II to today's Macs, where the hardware and operating system are vertically integrated and thus getting the operating system that ran the software that you wanted necessarily also meant getting hardware of a certain brand. The divorce of that hardware from the operating system destroyed IBM's monopoly power, which made possible competition in the hardware market, thus destroying IBM's monopoly and paving the way for the rapid-paced evolution of hardware and uptake of the PC in the 1990's (this, by the way, is the primary reason why I am so thankful that Apple ended up being marginalized; tight-fisted vertical integration of hardware and software has long been Apple's MO, and had they been at the helm, all the fast-paced innovation of the 90's would have been largely muted, and even today, Apple's "innovations" are largely aesthetic while all the real work of more powerful hardware development falls upon the legions of generally little-known hardware manufacturers made possible by the lack of hardware-software vertical integration).

Microsoft is quite cognizant of the way by which IBM fell from its pedestal, and this was why they were so fearful of Netscape and why they launched an all-out effort to destroy it. In hindsight, Microsoft never needed a heavy-handed tactic to destroy Netscape, since, despite all the hoopla over the antitrust violations, 90% of Netscape's demise could be attributed to the fact that Navigator 4 was by far the worst, most unstable, most buggy, and most atrocious browser to have ever been widely released. Microsoft's illegal actions only hastened the death that Netscape brought upon itself. But had Netscape actually produced a decent product, and had the conditions in the 90's been right (keep in mind that broadband was rare and many people were still not connected at all), Netscape could have posed a threat to Microsoft because if applications started to move online, then it would be Netscape's browser that would be the most important platform, and the choice of operating system would be marginalized, much like how the choice of computer brand was marginalized. Microsoft knew this, and it knew that it could not repeat IBM's mistake, so they tried to protect themselves through vertical integration, so when the day comes when online applications supplant offline applications, they would be running atop Microsoft's platform, not Netscape's.

Fast-forward a decade, and we are now only beginning to see the first glimmer of the world of truly functional web applications, in a very immature state in the form of AJAX and Flash. Although online applications are still far from supplanting offline applications, for a large segment of the population, especially among newcomers and casual users, the applications that matter most are e-mail, chat, web browsing, word processing, and maybe some multimedia playback,and all of which are applications that are independent of the operating system (some, like web-based e-mail, has been OS-independent for a long time, and some, like word processing, only broke free from the confines of the OS fairly recently with the launch of Google Docs). Through the standardization of web browsers, the browser has become less important, marginalizing the safety net that Microsoft had hoped to win with Internet Explorer, and with the prevalence of broadband and a growing number of people comfortable with the online world, this is the beginning of the end for Microsoft's monopoly. The recent uptick in Apple sales is in part due to the iPod halo effect and Apple's effective cult indoctrination brainwashing marketing department, but it is also greatly helped by the fact that as more and more of the applications that people care about are located online (either because of applications moving online or a shift in the things that people care about), the importance of the operating system is reduced, thus naturally destroying Microsoft's monopoly power (note that monopolies are not necessarily bad; it's monopoly power that is bad).

By now, it should be apparent why Microsoft's CEO, Steve Ballmer, made a private remark a couple of years ago (that was later leaked to the public) about wanting to "fucking kill" Google. A young, relatively small upstart is threatening to destroy a large, mature, and well-established corporation's world by pulling the rug from underneath them by shifting the platform away. Of course, the analogy isn't perfect. Although Google is the primary gateway to the Internet (just as Windows is the primary "gateway" to desktop applications), Google is not a monopoly in part because there are far fewer networking effects conducive to the formation of a natural monopoly. In layman's terms, Google is a quasi-monopoly of choice since people use Google because they choose to and they can easily switch to another search engine to find the same sites while Microsoft is a monopoly of necessity since certain programs only runs on Windows. And if Google were to become a monopoly, it would be one with very limited monopoly powers.

Finally, what about the browser? The thing that Microsoft had so long feared? W3C standardization has helped reduce the browser to just a commodity product whose choice is becoming less and less important. Gecko, which was built from scratch from the ruins of Netscape, still clings onto the notion of the browser as a platform, and as such, it is the most powerful and robust browser engine, making Gecko almost like an OS (after all, the Firefox browser, Thunderbird e-mail client, and Seamonkey communications suite are all rendered, independently of OS, by the Gecko engine--as in the UI and controls are all handled by Gecko, much like how Windows apps are rendered by the WinAPI). Although there is the chance that the model of the browser as a quasi-OS may bear fruit in the future, I have my doubts about whether this model will take off.

This entry was edited on 2007/07/03 at 15:29:23 GMT -0400.