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  • The FTC Needs to Investigate Microsoft!

    April 13th, 2009

    I’ve been extremely hard on Microsoft in recent years. First, I’ve criticized them for their bait and switch and other shady marketing schemes, and then I’ve even gone so far as to suggest they are doomed to fail big time in a few years.

    I don’t think many of you agree with me about Microsoft’s potential for future irrelevance. After all they still have billions in the bank, and they make huge profits on their software. All right, they are laying off 5,000 people, but maybe they were simply overstaffed and used the state of the economy as an excuse to dump unproductive workers.

    But I’m quite serious about what I say, and I think Microsoft’s sordid history is sufficient to warrant some close scrutiny by the authorities. We in the states shouldn’t depend on the European Union to do the heavy lifting when it comes to fining Microsoft for various and sundry offenses.

    Sure, the Department of Justice also clamped down on the company more or less, but the regulation-free environment of the Bush administration probably lessened the penalties. For example, efforts to break up the company were quickly abandoned.

    Now in recent issues of our weekly newsletter, I have reminded you of some of the questionable tactics Microsoft has employed over the years. They promised technologies that were either never delivered or released in crippled form in order to ward off competitors. That the media continued to believe them through the years without bothering to follow up on past misrepresentations is highly unfortunate. It almost seems as if too many so-called reporters are afraid to ask Microsoft the hard questions about their shady behavior.

    But let me put my cards on the table. You see, there’s nothing wrong with being a fierce competitor. It’s a jungle out there, and may the best company win. All too often, however, Microsoft has succeeded not because they built the best product, but because they were able to stomp down other companies in a dishonest fashion to gain ascendancy.

    However, their worse offense was the early programming decisions that failed to anticipate the rise of Internet malware, and thus left Windows users supremely vulnerable. Some years ago, Consumer Reports published an article stating that some nine billion dollars had been lost by businesses as a result of PC-based computer viruses in the previous two years. What wasn’t mentioned is that every single penny was due to a Windows malware infection of one sort or another.

    I suppose Microsoft could defend themselves by claiming that no computing platform is immune to malware. That is true. They could also state that they are targeted more often because they occupy the number one position in the operating system market. Further, that it’s largely the fault of their customers that their systems are not properly protected. Microsoft claims to release security patches in a timely fashion, and security software companies will also update malware definition files as soon as new infections are discovered.

    This combination, they would probably assert, ought to keep most PC users fully protected. Yet, as many of you know, millions of PCs were invaded by the Conficker worm, and its full impact is not yet certain. All right, Microsoft will also claim that those who suffered from those infections failed to take proper security precautions. It is, therefore, their fault.

    Unfortunately, a defense of that sort is based on the assumption that all malware can be controlled with Windows patches and security updates. The problem is that many PC viruses infect a large number of computers before patches are developed and virus definitions updated. That is, of course, the shortcoming of these techniques, since Microsoft and the other companies are always playing a game of catchup.

    So how does the FTC get involved? Well, first, an action on their part could be based on misleading advertising. An example would be that fake survey Microsoft commissioned from industry analyst Roger Kay to prove PCs cost thousands less than Macs to buy and operate over a period of five years. The flaws are so blatant that I wonder how the guilty parties believed they could get away with it, and not suffer from careful scrutiny — and not just from loyal Mac users.

    Other deceptive tactics would be more difficult to prove, but maybe worth the effort nonetheless. It would involve demonstrating that the flawed development process of Windows made it more susceptible to malware than it would have otherwise been. The examples of Unix, for example, would show that it’s possible to build a PC operating system that makes it more difficult for malware to spread, thus perhaps saving customers billions of dollars in lost productivity and revenue.

    Indeed, I wonder why customers aren’t filing class action lawsuits right and left against Microsoft for its various and sundry offenses. Sure, no doubt there are such actions here and there, but none come to mind of a significant nature that are apt to gain sufficient credibility to yield positive results.

    I realize that my request is difficult, and the FTC no doubt feels it has more important things to do. Then again, don’t they use Windows PCs too in large part? Surely they know what’s wrong with Microsoft without people like me having to tell them.

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