Mac Musings

Trustworthy Computing, Untrustworthy Customers, and Windows Activation

Daniel Knight - 2005.02.25

I just read on Slashdot and BetaNews about Microsoft's latest move in fighting piracy and frustrating Windows users. Starting February 28, new PC buyers will have to call Microsoft to activate Windows XP on their new computers if the manufacturer hasn't already activated the installation.

Worse yet, customers will have to call Microsoft and authenticate their copy of Windows XP any time they reinstall the operating system - and it's my understanding of Windows that reinstalling the OS is a fairly common method of trouble shooting.

Think about that. You build your own PC, buy a PC from a local assembler, or buy one that hasn't been activated, and you have to use your telephone to talk to Microsoft so you can use their operating system. No more online activation.

That's just one more reason to stick with older versions of Windows, migrate to Linux, or move to a Mac. You can just install and use the operating system - no phone calls required.

Friends or Enemies?

Microsoft believes that software piracy is such a big deal that it must inconvenience every Windows buyer with a Certificate of Authenticity and a numbered software license. Woe unto those who need to reinstall even earlier versions of Windows without that registration number.

Even that was easier in the old days. You keyed in the lengthy number, and once you got it right (the operating system could tell), you could start using Windows. Later Microsoft moved to online activation, which still meant you didn't need a phone near your computer.

Before 9-11, it was easy to board an airplane. You needed your ticket and identification, and then you got to walk through the metal detector. And if you weren't flying, you could see friends off or even visit airport restaurants.

You were treated without suspicion even if you did have to take the keys and coins out of your pocket or remove your belt because of an oversized buckle.

After 9-11, many of those airport restaurants are inaccessible to the public, located on the "wrong side" of the metal detectors. You can no longer see your friends off on the other side of security. And you get to take off your shoes, walk through the metal detector, and maybe even be scanned with a wand or patted down before they let you through the security checkpoint.

You are treated as a security risk. If you don't have a ticket, you stay on one side of the checkpoint. If you have a ticket, you're treated as a potential terrorist.

Needless to say, air traffic is down, many airport restaurants are suffering, and it's not nearly as enjoyable dropping off or picking up friends at the airport.

What Homeland Security has done for air travel, Microsoft has done for product activation. To combat piracy, everyone is assumed guilty until proved otherwise. Microsoft doesn't trust its customers.

Trusted Computing

Apple, on the other hand, trusts its customers. Maybe part of that's due to the fact that you have to have one of their computers to use their operating system, but the Mac OS has never required a serial number, a phone call, or online activation before it can be used.

The same goes for most Apple software. I have several Claris and Apple programs that ask for a user name and serial number the first time you use them, but you can leave them blank and the software will still work just fine.

Sure, some Mac users probably install their copy of Mac OS 8.1 or 10.3 to more than the one or five computers it's licensed for - and without serial number registration, Apple has no way of knowing that - but Apple is willing to live with a few less sales to avoid the expense of supporting product activation.

Or maybe they just trust us.

Microsoft, on the other hand, talks about trustworthy computing, has the most plague-ridden operating system on the planet, and doesn't trust its customers. They may strive to create a trustworthy computing platform - something Mac and Linux users already have- but they don't consider their customers trustworthy.

That sounds criminal, but on second thought, they may be on to something. The cost of Windows XP is prohibitive. Amazon discounts the US$300 program to US$257.99. That's great incentive for piracy. (The Home Edition retails at US$200! And, yes, I do realize there are lots of ways to get WinXP on the cheap.)

Mac OS X is a steal at US$129 for a single-user license, US$199 for a 5-user family license. There's a lot less money to be made pirating the Mac OS because of a smaller market and a lower price for the OS.

But there's another area where Microsoft customers are downright criminal - they're the ones who create the viruses, the Trojans, the spyware, the malware, the hijackers, the worms, the spambots, and who knows what else. Mac users and Linux users don't seem interested in destroying their computing platform; a very important minority of Windows users lives to wreak havoc on other Windows users.


There are three strong choices in computing platforms. Windows is the default choice of the masses, the default target for malware engineers, and the only OS that seems to trust malware more than it trusts its own users.

Linux is the free alternative, and it runs on the same hardware as Windows (an on the Mac). It's the choice of a minority, secure against 99% of the malware out there, and it trusts its users. It also assumes that Linux users are fairly tech-savvy; it's nowhere near as friendly as Windows or the Mac OS.

Mac OS X is the commercial alternative to Windows. It's also the choice of a minority, secure against any known malware at present, and it trusts its users. It only runs on Apple hardware, is very user-friendly, and trusts its users.

Much as Linux tries to position itself as a realistic alternative to Windows, it seems doomed to be the choice of savvy users while remaining virtually unknown to the masses. It's hard to market a product that's free, and that applies to Linux apps as much as to the operating system itself.

Mac OS X is positioned at a realistic alternative to Windows. It comes with a very good browser, email program, digital photo manager, digital music manager, and more. There's plenty of good commercial software for it, including Microsoft Windows. And there's an absolute failure of the malware community to release a single program that can infect or hijack the Mac.

Perhaps the best way to grow market share is to give your customers a better product and trust them not to abuse that trust. As Microsoft makes using Windows more expensive and more of a hassle - not to mention the (in)security issues - they'll push more and more Windows users to look at alternatives.

Buying a Mac is just a phone call away.