Microsoft: There they go again

When Microsoft decided to name its new operating system Windows XP (it had been originally code named Whistler), no doubt they hoped it would stand for "eXtra Profits." Unfortunately, if the events of the past few weeks are any indication, XP might turn out to mean "eXtra Problematic."

The company has wanted a single operating system for a long time (currently Microsoft offers Windows 98 and Windows 2000, which are successors to Windows 95 and Windows NT), and its sees the wide adoption of XP as part of its .Net master plan: to rule the Internet in much the same way it has ruled the desktop for the past 10 years. But as Microsoft approaches its planned XP launch date of October 25, 2001, significant problems have arisen.

Here are a few:

* Really bad planning.

SmartTags was the XP feature that would have allowed Microsoft to turn certain words into links (or perhaps sell them), which would have appeared on any web site, regardless of how the site felt about the practice. The public outcry was enormous, and Microsoft dropped the feature - at least for now.

Microsoft had originally wanted to limit the number of icons on the XP desktop. This was, it said, part of a design that sought a more simplified interface. But again, the idea that Microsoft could determine what icons were visible on what is arguably the most valuable real estate in history didn't sit well with many people. Last week Microsoft quietly announced that it would allow people to put whatever icons they wanted on the desktop.

Meanwhile, there are concerns that the new XP technology will make it much easier for hackers to use Windows machines to launch denial-of-service attacks on unsuspecting sites.

* Really bad customer service.

Microsoft launched the XP Preview Program on July 2. About 100,000, were willing to pay either $10 (for direct download) or $20 (for a CD) to kick XP's tires. But the preview was almost immediately in trouble. Conxion, the company distributing the software, took a long time to distribute via e-mail the information people need to operate XP. Or it sent them the wrong user name and password. Meanwhile, thanks to a security glitch, many people downloaded the program for free.

This foreshadows another potential crisis. Windows XP will require an activation code to make it work. It's an anti-piracy measure but it means the system can be installed only once. Many people will need to call Microsoft to get the activation code. Based on the experience above, activation could be chaotic.

There is also the question of a one-time-only installation. What happens if the software doesn't work properly and you need to reinstall it? (I've had to reinstall my Windows 98 software twice in the past two years.) Not an idea designed to warm the cockles of a consumer's wallet.

* Really bad behavior.

Lost in the media's misreading of the appeals court's decision that panned the penalties suggested by Judge Jackson was the reality that the court really hammered Microsoft. It upheld eight significant findings of anti-trust violations. The Justice Department asked the appeals court to immediately send the case back to a lower court to decide if the company should be broken up. But there's another reason why the Justice folks want a quick decision - if Microsoft isn't forced to make significant changes to XP, it will use the new operating system to undermine rivals in areas like media players (such as Real Networks) the same way it undermined Netscape. So look for the Justice Department to ask for an injunction to prevent the launch of XP if changes aren't made.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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