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Microsoft makes hard decisions easier

Let's pretend that we're OEMs. Original Equipment Manufacturers, the people who design and build the actual hardware which finds its way onto desks, into backpacks and under thumbs.

Let's pretend that we're OEMs. Original Equipment Manufacturers, the people who design and build the actual hardware which finds its way onto desks, into backpacks and under thumbs.

One of the really interesting questions for us OEMs as we make our smart gadgets, PCs and the like is what software to put on them. Anyone can build a computer these days: it's what you make it do, and how you sell it, that matters.

Since, oh, about 1983, those questions have been easy to answer. We make it run a Microsoft operating system, because that's how we get to all the applications software, and we sell it as a better, cheaper (sometimes more stylish -- but mostly cheaper) way to run Microsoft.

But next season is 2008. Suddenly, three things have happened. The cost of the bits to make our gizmos has fallen through the floor - we can get a complete PC through the channel with a ticket price of £200. And, while Microsoft is still looking for a good chunk of that retail price for a copy of Windows, that there free software seems to be going down a storm with the punters. And, thirdly, this. Microsoft has been forced to admit that one of its major pushes into the home sector, the Windows Home Server, sold (inter alia) as the perfect way to store all that ever-increasing mass of home digital data and keep it safe, can corrupt home finance, media and other files.

And if we're an OEM, looking for ways to cut costs and cut support hassles, we may ask ourselves why we want to pay extra for something that doesn't work. Linux doesn't work all the time either - but at least it doesn't charge for the privilege, and the option is there for OEMs like us to hire some bright people, fix problems, even (and this is a shocking idea) write some software ourselves to do things our customers want.

How many bright people would we have to hire to to fix Windows Home Server and turn it into something that our customers wanted, as opposed to something that ate their files - which, we may assume, they do Not Want? That's not an option. Even if we did go out and find smart people, we'd be legally forbidden to use them to sort the customers' problems out. Fixing Microsoft's code without its permission? It's got lawyers for occasions like this.

These are not pressures which Microsoft can shrug off, not as long as it keeps its prices high and its products faulty. My guess is that it'll drop its prices before it fixes its software, because dropping prices is something that can be done by executive fiat, while fixing corporate culture takes enlightenment. Meanwhile, the free software movement - and those who rely on it, like Apple - may find previously locked doors swinging open at the touch of a finger. 2008 may be more interesting than we thought.