De-Fanging Microsoft


Like many, I was intrigued and ultimately disappointed by the first of the new Microsoft ads. But I assumed that it was in the nature of a teaser – or maybe even a clever ploy to lower expectations for later episodes, thus increasing their eventual impact.

The recent appearance of the second episode seems to confirm this analysis. Although some are still unimpressed, I find this latest vignette – because that's what it is, rather than anything so crass and crude as an advertisement – rather witty. It is almost British in its understated, off-beat humour.

What's most striking for me is how well Bill Gates comes out of it. The image he presents is slightly nerdish, but ultimately self-deprecating and rather appealing in a rumpled kind of way. And that, I think, is the whole point of these ads: they are designed not just to soften Gates's and Microsoft's image, but positively de-fang it.

I imagine that later episodes will continue to portray Gates – and by implication Microsoft and its products – as quietly superior but not at all aloof or divorced from everyday realities and needs.

That on its own wouldn't be much of a problem for open source. After all, on the Internet everyone knows Vista is a dog, and no amount of sly humour is going to convince people to install a bloated DRM application masquerading as an operating system. But I think there's another narrative emerging that could make Microsoft's ads very dangerous.

As Google celebrates its 10th anniversary , the retrospectives are focusing more and more on the threat the company poses.

For a while, most people have vaguely appreciated that Google really knows far too much about us, but the fears that engenders are starting to be articulated ever more loudly – and shrilly. In other words, Google, rather than Microsoft, is becoming the new digital bogeyman.

Now, that may be healthy if it instils in people more circumspection when it comes to accepting Google's Faustian pact. But there's an interesting knock-on consequence. Drawing on the logic that my enemy's enemy is my friend, I think that regulatory authorities will start to see Microsoft not as an anti-trust problem in its own right, but as part of the solution to the new anti-trust problem that Google is morphing into.

That is, there will be less willingness to clobber Microsoft for its aggressive activities since they will be seen as an important counterweight to Google. The danger is that free software, which by definition can never be monopolistic, will get squashed in the competitive melee that ensues.

For this reason, I have rather mixed feelings about the emerging Microsoft ads. On the one hand, I rather enjoy them at an artistic level, but on the other, I think they will contribute to a general deterioration of the context in which free software operates.

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