It's not the Gates, it's the bars

To pay so much attention to Bill Gates's retirement is missing the point; it is neither Gates nor Microsoft that really matter, says the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman

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What really matters is not Gates, nor Microsoft, but the unethical system of restrictions that Microsoft, like many other software companies, imposes on its customers.

That statement may surprise you, since most people interested in computers have strong feelings about Microsoft. Businessmen and their tame politicians admire its success in building an empire over so many computer users.

Many outside the computer field credit Microsoft for advances which it only took advantage of, such as making computers cheap and fast, and convenient graphical user interfaces.

Gates' philanthropy for health care for poor countries has won some people's good opinion. The LA Times reported that his foundation spends five to 10% of its money annually and invests the rest, sometimes in companies it suggests cause environmental degradation and illness in the same poor countries.

Many computerists specially hate Gates and Microsoft. They have plenty of reasons.

'Solicit funds'

Microsoft persistently engages in anti-competitive behaviour, and has been convicted three times. George W Bush, who let Microsoft off the hook for the second US conviction, was invited to Microsoft headquarters to solicit funds for the 2000 election.

Many users hate the "Microsoft tax", the retail contracts that make you pay for Windows on your computer even if you won't use it.

In some countries you can get a refund, but the effort required is daunting.

There's also the Digital Restrictions Management: software features designed to "stop" you from accessing your files freely. Increased restriction of users seems to be the main advance of Vista.

'Gratuitous incompatibilities'

Then there are the gratuitous incompatibilities and obstacles to interoperation with other software. This is why the EU required Microsoft to publish interface specifications.

This year Microsoft packed standards committees with its supporters to procure ISO approval of its unwieldy, unimplementable and patented "open standard" for documents. The EU is now investigating this.

These actions are intolerable, of course, but they are not isolated events. They are systematic symptoms of a deeper wrong which most people don't recognise: proprietary software.

Microsoft's software is distributed under licenses that keep users divided and helpless. The users are divided because they are forbidden to share copies with anyone else. The users are helpless because they don't have the source code that programmers can read and change.

If you're a programmer and you want to change the software, for yourself or for someone else, you can't.

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