January 2003

The slew of product announcements from the epicenter of software mediocrity, Microsoft, has taken a new twist. More and more of these products are physical, real-world devices such as monitors, mininotebook PCs, handheld devices, even tablets! No, I don't mean pills, although it might seem as though yet another tasteless, mind-numbing episode would make an aspirin a welcome relief -- if not encouraging something stronger.

Microsoft is well along in the second phase of its efforts to insinuate itself into every aspect of 21st-century existence. Having grasped tight control of the human-machine interface (HMI), it is now using this intersection of humans and computers as the foundation of its spread into manufacturing information-centric devices themselves. This means that for those of us who have found superior, more elegant ways to interface with computers, we will find more and more cases in which the interface is not a piece of software that can be deleted, reloaded, or modified at will. Instead, the interface will be etched in silicon in the form of "firmware," or software code that is embedded in chips instead of written to a disk-based medium. "No user serviceable parts" indeed.

This "XPerience" now happens at the grocery store, for example. A Windoze-based touchscreen locked up when I scanned the first item in my shopping basket this evening. So I had to move my items from this efficient, labor-saving "self-service" line, over to a standard checkout counter manned by a flesh-and-blood human being. I have noticed that this brand-new grocery store (part of a regional food store chain) apparently has more clerks helping the self-service lines than it does over on the standard, "old-fashioned" manual checkout lines. This is wonderful for increasing employment opportunities for bored housewives, desperate retirees, and entry-level jobseekers, but that's not the purpose of software, is it?

"Productivity" is one of those weasel-words that can mean almost anything you want it to mean. It's really a marketer's paradise and a lawyer's nightmare, because it has become an infinitely elastic, ever-elusive goal. If the store needs to make up for lost productivity due to failed computer equipment, it can just tell the clerks to clock out and keep working, since only the first 40 hours will be reported to management as "time worked." WalMart was recently targeted for lawsuits in numerous states for doing this very thing.

As I have said for almost a decade, if you let a band of blustering, slick-talking buffoons dictate software standards, it is only a matter of time before the man serves the machine instead of the other way around. Software is supposed to be transparent. It is not supposed to become yet another thing that can break down. It is not supposed to be a layer of bureaucratic gobbledygook that gums up the gears of commerce, but that's what Windoze has done to the "real world" it is now being applied to.

There are more harmful results from some monopolies than from others. Having one company monopolize the garbage-hauling business might result in higher waste disposal costs, but it's not likely to reduce productivity or increase frustration in the daily activities of life. Having one company monopolize the production and distribution of pizza might result in some very boring pizza, but there are plenty of other things to eat. However, having one company dominate the human-machine interface is bound to lead to boring, expensive, tasteless products in market after market, even the checkout line at the local supermarket. We are sure to see Xtra Problems from the Redmond regime.

So while we may whine about "lack of choice" in the PC software business, we are slowly seeing the monopoly leverage applied all around us in an outward direction. Soon, what we recognize as a "lack of choice" in PC software may become the last bastion of any technology choice whatsoever.

Most recent revision: January 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003, Tom Nadeau
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