Mira, Mira in the bin

Matt Loney: With Mira, we'll end up paying twice to use our PC once, and there are only two explanations; either that Microsoft intentionally cripples Windows XP, or that it is rubbish at writing operating systems.

If you're not familiar with Mira, then you soon will be. Microsoft's 'smart display' will be hitting retail shelves early in 2003, and a large publicity and advertising drive is likely to accompany it. Some of this advertising will no doubt go towards explaining why Mira works the way it does, and in fact during a press tour this week that preceded the launch, we were indeed told that consumers will need "re-educating".

Now before you go racing for your parka, this does not mean that you're about to be shipped off to a Chinese gulag staffed by Cultural Revolution die-hards. No, it means that you are to be immersed into the weird and not-so-wonderful world of Microsoft licensing.

Microsoft's corporate customers have already had a taste of this; it was necessary to make them see the sense in buying two licences so that one person can use one PC. If you think that is too odd to be true, just find someone who uses a Citrix client on a Windows PC to run applications residing on a Windows server. Corporates also had another taster of Microsoft licensing when they discovered, some years back, that Windows NT4 Workstation was much more similar to Windows NT4 Server than Microsoft had ever admitted, and the only thing that stopped the Workstation product being used a Web server platform was a peculiar registry setting and a licence that said no more than ten people at once could access the machine running the operating system.

Now we all know that consumers are smarter that corporates. Consumers would never buy the spin. Say, for instance, that Microsoft offered a product -- through hardware manufacturing partners -- that let you use your PC remotely, but made it impossible for someone else to use the PC while you were using this remote terminal. It would be like saying that if you took the cushion from your chair to go sit on the sofa, nobody else is allowed to sit on the chair unless they buy a cushion too.

But that's exactly what Mira does. It is basically a remote control for your PC; a touch-sensitive screen linked by Wi-Fi that acts as a mobile window to Windows. Only, when you remove it from its docking station to use it remotely, the PC locks up, just to be absolutely sure that your other half doesn't break the terms of the Windows licence by -- heaven forbid -- using the PC in the study while you're using it from the sofa in the lounge. Just imagine. The civilised world would crumble.

Now Microsoft has a right to crack down on counterfeiters, and to try to stop people installing one copy of Windows on every PC in a company, but I wonder whether the company is just taking the whole licensing a bit too far with Mira. After all, Mira users will have forked out an extra grand for their Mira device (which will include, presumably, a licence fee passed back to Microsoft for the Windows CE that Mira runs), on top of the money they paid for their PC (including a licence fee passed back to Microsoft for Windows XP).

Just how many licence fees, exactly, does Microsoft want us to buy?

That's a rhetorical question by the way. The answer is just as many as the company can get us to swallow; after all, Windows (together with Office) has an 85 percent profit margin, as we recently learnt. It's a nice little earner; in fact the division responsible for it is the company's only earner.

I suspect that our "re-education" may come in the form of an explanation telling us that the desktop version of Windows XP cannot run two users sessions simultaneously. If that is so, then there are only two explanations; either that Microsoft intentionally cripples Windows XP as it did with NT4 Workstation, or that the company is really much better at marketing than it is at writing operating systems. After all, even light, mobile versions of the Linux operating system, which is freely available, can easily run as many simultaneous user sessions as cushions you have on your sofa.

Microsoft has a tough job ahead explaining why consumers need to pay twice to use their PC once. It worked with corporates. It has not worked quite so well with smaller businesses, for whom Microsoft recently said it plans to offer a more lenient licensing plan intended to stem defections to Linux and other open-source software. I suspect it may not work at all with consumers; if that's the case, and there is enough pressure brought to bear, then perhaps Microsoft could be persuaded to let consumers use what they feel they have paid for.

And if consumers don't stand up to Microsoft, then perhaps the hardware manufacturers, emboldened (we hope) by the whole antitrust affair, would simply load a different client onto Mira devices so that we can use them to access Linux boxes instead. Now, who stole my cushion?

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