For the past two weeks, I've been hiding from the world on a Swedish farm. No broadband, negligible mobile coverage — in fact, nothing but various forms of shortwave radio to keep me connected. The experience confirms my suspicion that the Internet is a huge psychic tick that drains creativity, knowledge and motivation painlessly away. Cut off from the Web's probing mouthparts and anaesthetic saliva, I scoop nearly 50k words of lopsided fiction out of my system and into a review notebook — which subsequently looks like it's been beaten up by a mad tramp, as a glance in a mirror at the end of the sojourn shows I have become.
So, what have I missed? Free software cuts costs for schools, say schools. Nonsense, says Microsoft — you pay less if it costs more. Firefox has serious security problems — fixed in 48 hours. IE has serious security problems — not fixed in 48 hours. There are rumours that an election took place: I see little evidence of this. 'People want ID cards,' says government. 'Pardon?', say people. Software patents get ever more absurd. Wireless standards get ever more entangled in puffery and special interests. A week might be a long time in politics, but a fortnight changes nothing in this game.
However, something has changed in the office. I wrote an intemperate and bloody-minded piece before Sweden about the absurdities of Microsoft's email software, which was founded at least partially by the amount of swearing that Outlook and Exchange squeeze out of me — to the annoyance of several colleagues. The article got a few 'blimey, he's off on one again' responses from muh fellow Cnettians — but on my return, I find them too swearing much more freely at the damn thing. "Outlook really blows goats, doesn't it?" said one previously imperturbable chap.
Perhaps it's time. Perhaps the "No, not good enough" idea can spread, buoyed up on a foam of bad-tempered rudeness and irritable dissatisfaction. And it isn't good enough. If you haven't tried a Mac recently, then do. Have a Linux luvvie show off what that can do. Then sit back down at what Microsoft claims is the state of the art in software development, and prepare to swear. We've tried being reasonable, we've tried being firm — now's the time to be openly rude.
Oh, and it's my 40th birthday today. I've been nice, quiet and calm for quite long enough...
Whoop! Whoop! Scanners are picking up the distinctive emissions of a futurologist, Captain. Identity... Ian Pearson, from the BeeTee homeworld. Futurology is a peculiar business — a particularly soulless brand of sci-fi where the characters exist only to press buttons. As futurologists tend to be employed by companies that make gadgets or sell services that interact in some way with gadgets, the futures they ologise are mini-utopias created entirely by gadgets. Trust us, is the theme, and we shall deliver you from evil. Thanks, but I've heard that one. As has anyone who's come into contact with the cracking satirical SF dystopias that came out of the gee-whizz Madison Avenue days of America half a century ago (Try The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth to see just how little has changed).
To give him his due, Pearson's eye-swivel rate is far below the worst of the species — but that means he falls into the second common trap. If you're not positing something that's too good to be true, it's too trite to be interesting. Today's pronouncement is that we shall all have 'force fields' surrounding us, protecting us from the yammering intrusion of marketing messages carried aloft on the sea of wireless connectivity that even now rises to engulf us all. Well, yes — but then I could describe my spyware, adware, virus and intrusion firewall software in exactly those terms. Am I sheltering behind a force field, or just running some software?
Working out what the future holds and deciding whether we want it that way is very important: foresight is what makes us human and justifies the power that some give, some take. There is nothing wrong with playing spacemen in the meadows of what-iffery. But I'd be much more interested if BT sponsored a bright, imaginative and insightful chap whose primary interests weren't in gizmo-laden extrapolations, but in the morality and social implications of companies operating in a very pro-corporate and technical environment. What if BT had managed to impose that patent on hyperlinks? What will happen if everything SCO wants to be true, is true? In the painfully bright world of the corporate future, what is the relationship between us and the company — who owns what, and who has the right to do what?
These are the questions which matter, the questions good SF and exceptional sci-fi tackles head-on and futurologists tend to shove under the nano-woven active-surface technocarpet. I don't mind the force fields, but let's uncloak some of the motivations too.
For those who like their heroes in white hats and their villains in black, Microsoft's anti-spyware efforts are kicking up a disturbing amount of grey dust. Take today's story, that MS is trying to make it hard for spyware companies to take anti-spyware companies to court. Spyware and adware enterprises are there to make money, and if you chop their bits out of software you're interfering with that. You're not generally allowed to target a legitimate business's lawful activities, and so such companies send in the lawyers.
But is spyware and adware legitimate? It doesn't take much of a walk in this particular forest to find the quicksand: what's spyware in one definition is demographic data gathering in another. That can be resolved by finding out what the user knew and agreed to, a task that is in itself remarkably hard. Do you know the details of the licence agreement for every piece of software you've used today?
The law is far too blunt an instrument of first resort for anyone in this game. It's a classic area for self-regulation, where people who create, sell and use anything that collect data from or try to change the behaviour of users should get together and decide what standards they want to follow. I'd hold out for a clear, non-legalistic explanation of what their software does to you and why as part of any installation process, together with unambiguous and complete logs of what it's done. If companies subscribe to a code of practice that has that sort of level of respect for the user, then they have a strong moral case that their business should not be interfered with by other software. If they don't, then who's to say that a high level of paranoid protection isn't appropriate?
Microsoft's attempts to cut down the legal noise surrounding the spyware wars have some points in their favour, but little chance of creating a saner environment even if they are accepted. Filters that set up tests for frivolousness can easily become part of the great American programme for full employment for lawyers. Far better for the industry itself to sort out what is and isn't permissible, as a first step towards sanity, and that has to start with taking the rights of the user seriously.
Richard Stallman is someone who could never be accused of taking users' rights too lightly. In fact, he may be the only person ever to make me feel sympathetic towards those poor repressed underdog corporations: it's not a pleasant business being at the sharp end of his uncompromising philosophy.
But he's off doing good — with luck — in Taiwan, where he's behind closed doors (although with open windows, one hopes) and talking to hardware manufacturers about opening up driver information. It's an essential commercial decision, working out how much of your company's limited resources to allocate to writing minority interest software like Linux drivers, and it's hard to argue against whatever a particular company does. It's harder to understand why you'd want to keep the information secret that could let others do that job for you — at no cost, excepting perhaps the odd email. Yet many hardware manufacturers are obsessively secretive about such details.
The obvious reason is to stop your competitors from finding out what you've done — obvious, but wrong. Anyone in a position to profit from that level of detail is going to be equipped to find it out whether you tell them or not. You might save them an engineer-month or two if you just tell them, but the loss is tiny compared to the potential win from having people who aren't your competitors — and who are thus much less likely to find out for themselves — know how to make your hardware more desirable. And in any case, by the time you've put a product on the market those innovations of yours are already old news. You'd better be busy working on the next version already: if your competitors want to incorporate ideas a generation out of date in their next version, then what the hell. Let them.
A less obvious reason to keep your technology close to your chest is to maintain flexibility. You might want to make radical changes to an interface between revisions, and if the only people writing the drivers are in the office next door you can keep much more control over the whole process. You won't have legions of annoyed independents suddenly surprised by the change. But so what if they are? At least with an open attitude to publishing the details once you're selling the hardware, they can swiftly adapt.
Old habits die hard, as does the sense that security through secrecy provides unparalleled advantages. Sometimes it does, but there's a point where it hinders rather than helps — and if Stallman can push that point back in time, he'll have done everyone a favour.
One of the single most annoying things about Microsoft is the way it misuses information. Today's kerfuffle over its habit of patenting the blindingly obvious is rebuffed by the company with a terse statement that "Studies routinely rank our innovations among the most significant across any industry. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003, which provided an overall assessment of Microsoft's intellectual property, found that Microsoft continues to develop relevant patents and gave us one of the highest scores on the list of technology companies in that category."
Which study? Is that the one referenced in the MIT Technology Review article about the Patent Scorecard? Microsoft's not saying. It shows MS coming fifth in the computer industry, behind IBM, HP, Fujitsu and NEC: the score is basically the number of patents filed weighted by how many times previous patents from the same company have been cited 'in this year's batch'. There are no details of how many of those citations are from researchers outside the company — and since Microsoft has already submitted four times as many patents since the beginning of this year as it had in the whole of 2003, the current figures may be very different. But none of this is made plain by Microsoft, which is apparently content to adopt the legitimacy of 'an MIT study' without taking on the responsibility of identifying it or admitting what it might actually be saying. I could be completely wrong in identifying this study as the one that Microsoft means — Ingrid is on the case, and will get the complete story whether they want her to or not.
One is reminded of SCO's famous statement that a team of MIT mathematicians had been doing deep analysis of Linux and had found thousands of cases where it had been illegally derived from SCO's Unix. Thrilling stuff, until SCO refused to reveal any information about the individuals ("contractual obligations") or what they found ("You'll see it when we get to court") or what their connection was with MIT. MIT itself was baffled by the claim, as none of its mathematicians knew about any such analysis, and after much headscratching SCO 'clarified' that the team 'had links' to MIT, the details of which were to remain as much a mystery as everything else in the case.
In the case of Microsoft's XML patents, the mystery is what the innovation is. If I go back to the Swedish farm, could someone send me a morse code message when that's resolved? I could do with another few years out there...