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Control of technology
Just a couple of spare ideas about what I personally consider wrong in
this MS story.
+ The general public *is* ignorant about computers, to the point
that the "for dummies" series had a phaenomenal success.
I keep seeing this every day all around the world.
Nonetheless, you keep hearing naive (hmmm... or maybe smart?) arguments
telling us that the end user is "intelligently making his choices", and that
MS is in preminent position because the public "choose" it.
I am very very upset by the idea that such a completely biased
statement could be confirmed by a court judgement.
[To give an example of end-user illiteracy when it comes to
high tech stuff, I can tell you that in France they market
two kinds of beepers: the "Tatoo", that only displays 20 or so
DIGITS (yes, from 0 to 9), which is marketed with a funny advertisement
convincing you to "create your own language" for your "tribe"
(hey, are you joking? if I have to tell John to meet me at the train station,
what the hell do I send? 923481?).
Or, for double the price, you can get the "Tam Tam" which can
display "alphanumeric characters".
Maybe you don't believe this, but *it is true*, and nobody protested
on any media whatsoever for this blatant cheating on the people
who naively believes that sending alphanumeric data is "more expensive"
than sending numbers.]
+ MS could eventually take over control of technology *and* computer
science, for the reasons I outline below. This would be a major
disaster, independently on the fact that MS or some other private
enterprise take this control. But the point is, MS has
demonstrated by its course of action since its very beginning
that its interests are *not* advancing technology or computer science,
only *controlling* them. This makes the disaster a potential global
Here is why do I think that this can happen:
- MS *technology*, as far as I can tell from the sporadic personal
experiences and consistent flow of information from friends
working with MS tools, is up to now largely inferior to what
you can find even in free systems like Linux.
But his is not necessarily going to last indefinitely: as my
personal experience in the VCR story teached me, some good features
eventually will be incorporated in the inferior product that
got the monopoly (in the US you talk aboud VHS vs. Beta forgetting wholly the
Video 2000 european system, which was 10 years ago largely superior
to what VHS is now: no "tracking" stuff around. But now VHS has
"digital auto-tracking" :-)).
Without entering into details, the lesson is that repaired bad technology
is worse than good technology, comes in later, but eventually can
make you forget the good technology altogether.
This is already starting to happen: WinNT is not a piece of crap
like DOS was. You can even think to really run a web server on it.
It is conceivable that it could take the place of Unix servers for
the same reasons why Ibm PC took the place of better existing computers
years ago. It will take time, it will take billions of lost hours by
frustrated users, of piracy, viruses, stolen money on insecure servers,
lawsuits in tribunals and the like, but it could eventually become a
system "good enough" to live with.
- MS *research* is starting to recruit good people. This year's POPL
program committee featured one MS research computer scientist.
One PhD student here has an MS research guy as an external examiner
in his jury. A good friend of mine, which I respect as one of the
brightest researchers in computer science of his generation, has a
high opinion of a certain number of people at Microsoft research
(in a joke, he told me that they are doing "too much a good work"
for their "directors" to be happy with).
All in all, with enough money, you can buy a scientific reputation,
like many other industries did before. With the money MS has, they
can go further than that, and get control on a significant number
of academic events.
[please notice that research and technology are pretty well separated:
the scientific work for which you are judged in universities is most
of the time several years ahead of what you find deployed in actual
To sum up, I do not necessarily believe that if MS can keep its monopoly
we will always get trash products. What I have difficulty finding acceptable
is that a company having got a monopoly ruthlessly and despising its customers
could get the *control* both on research and on technology in such a vital
area as information technology.
--Roberto Di Cosmo
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Ecole Normale Superieure WWW : http://www.dmi.ens.fr/~dicosmo
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