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Blog : Posts tagged with 'Microsoft'

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Legal news

In which Microsoft are on the good side for once


Legal news of the week: Microsoft has lost a patent infringement case brought by Alcatel, the company that owns the rights to the MP3. That is, they don’t own the file format itself, but they own the patent on understanding what they mean.

Now, normally, “Microsoft losing a court case” would be Good News for computer users everywhere, because Microsoft generally aren’t a very nice company and seem to spend most of their time thinking up new ways to extract money from people.* This case isn’t, though, because software patents are a bad thing, a bad thing indeed. If you’re a geek you can skip this next bit, because you’ll already know why they’re a bad thing.

Software is, basically, a list of instructions for doing arithmetic. Forget all the flashy graphics you see on the screen. Forget your email and your IM programs. Computers are machines for pushing numbers around,** and computer software is a list of instructions for doing that. Remember doing long division at school? That was essentially a list of steps for working out division sums that are too hard to do in your head – software for your brain, in other words.

Now, imagine if the inventor of long division*** had patented it. Every time you did a long division sum, you’d have to pay him a royalty. If you invented a machine to do long divisions for you, you’d have to pay a bloody big royalty. That’s how patents work.

Software patents are even worse, because often they involve access to data which is otherwise locked up. All those MP3 files on your computer? There’s no practical use for them without decoding software. Decoding software is patented. Microsoft thought they’d paid the patent holders for the right to write a decoder and sell it with Windows – but then the patent holder changed, and the new owner thought otherwise. The courts agreed with them.

Imagine if the first person who ever thought of the idea of reading a book in the bath had patented it. They managed to get a patent on the following: “run bath, select book, get in bath, pick up book, hold book in a cunning way to avoid getting it wet, read.” That’s no different, essentially, from a software patent that involves reading data from a file. If someone had done that, then you could only read a book in the bath if you’d licensed the right to do so. That’s why software patents are bad and wrong.

In more amusing legal news, the right-wing UK Independence Party has been told to return over £350,000 in illegal donations, made by a businessman who wasn’t registered to vote at the time. The party think the ruling is ridiculous. It shines a light, though, on the underside of their philosophy. There are rules there to ensure that only British people with a stake in British politics can fund political parties. UKIP think the ruling is silly because the man is obviously British even though he couldn’t prove he was a British voter. Which just goes to show that they’re not interested in proof or evidence or process; their definition of Britishness seems to be that you’re Someone Like Us.

* which, to be fair, is what capitalist companies are supposed to do.

** that’s why they’re called “computers”, and not “communicators” or “info-readers”, despite that being their main use.

*** apparently the sixteenth-century Yorkshire mathematician Henry Briggs, according to this lecture from his old college

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Flooding

In which Exchange causes problems


Microsoft, everyone’s favourite evil behemoth, have been getting as much press as they can in the past few days to push their new operating system. At the same time, though, their software has been making my life a drag. And there’s nothing at all I can do about it.

The problem is their email server “messaging solution”, the horrible and nightmarish Microsoft Exchange. I know it’s a horrid system to babysit, but fortunately I don’t have to do any of that. Worse, though, it can make life bad for people like me who shouldn’t have to have anything to do with it.

Like most things Microsoft produces, it has a showstopper of a bug. It’s triggered by an innocent salesman* who decides to send an email to a long, long list of people at once. His (or her) own system has nothing to do with this; the problem is when one of the people in the recipient list uses a buggy Exchange. Their server will read the email, and send it out again. To all of the recipients. Thousands and thousands and thousands of times. Each copy looking like it’s coming from the original sender.

Moreover, some of those people will then reply, saying things like “why are you sending me thousands of emails, you fuckwit?” They don’t really help, though, because inevitably they push the “reply to all” button. Meaning they then generate a second email which triggers the same bug, so that email, too, gets duplicated thousands and thousands and thousands of times, until the administrator of the buggy server wakes up and takes their server offline to recover for a while.

Bugs in software are unavoidable. Most of them, though, don’t cause problems for more than one person at once. Bugs like that, though, that can block up internet connections and mail servers for hours at a time, should never have been released. Releasing software that disrupts the rest of the world, in that way, is unforgivable.

* Well, it’s not salesman-specific. But for some reason, it seems to be salesmen that set it off most of the time

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House Hunting

In which Big Dave prepares to leave, and Windows Vista prepares to arrive


Big Dave is busy at the moment. Not with work, but with finding somewhere to live. As he’s moving down to London at the end of the year, he’s spending nearly all his office time scouring the internet for affordable flats; mouse in one hand, A-Z in the other.

I’ve become his guide to London, it seems. “What’s Bermondsey like?” “What about Beckton?” “Silvertown? Where the hell’s Silvertown?” Work, so far as he’s concerned, has gone out of the window. Which, in a way, is a good thing. In a few weeks time, I’ll have to do all the work myself anyway. So, I may as well start doing nearly all of it now, whilst Dave is still around to bug if I get stuck.

The other main job for the moment: thinking up jokes about Windows Vista ready for its years-late release tomorrow.* There’s no chance at all we’ll be buying the thing at work, because none of the company’s PCs will actually run the behemoth at all well. PCs we bought a fortnight ago fail the Microsoft upgrade check. Hmm, maybe there was a reason they were so cheap.

* To get some idea why it’s so delayed, and why it’s such a behemoth, read about the byzantine management arrangements responsible for the shutdown options on the Start menu.

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Microsoft accuracy

In which we check the junk mail folder


Bill Gates clearly knows what he’s talking about. Two years and one day ago, he said that by now, email spam would no longer be a problem.

To be honest, in one way he’s right. Junk email isn’t actually a problem for me, personally. Not because it’s disappeared, though, but because I changed my address. I still have the old address – for a lot of people it’s the only contact info they have for me – but I rarely use it. I skim through it about once a week, or so, to see if there’s anything important in it.

The reason I stopped using it: even with filtering, it gets too much spam to be usable. Altogether, it gets around 100 to 150 junk mails per day. Whether that counts as “no longer a problem” in Bill Gates’ terms, I’m not really sure. Somehow, though, I think he’d probably admit that his prediction was slightly off.*

Update, 26th January: Somewhat has written about the same thing.

* and, to be fair, in the past few years, Microsoft has been putting a lot of time, money and effort into suing professional email spammers out of business.

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