The first year of the millennium wasn't a kind one for Microsoft, or for the customers who depend on its software. That means virtually all of us, in one way or another.
Microsoft's antitrust cases are still dragging through the court system. The business climate was dismal before Sept. 11; and since then, corporations have cut computer spending even further.
But the most important issue facing Microsoft is that people just don't trust the company or its products. Don't confuse this sentiment with not liking Microsoft -- heck, nobody likes Microsoft. I don't like the phone company, either, but I'm 99.999 percent certain that when I pick up the handset, I'll get a dial tone. I don't feel that way about my computer and most of the software I use, which happens to be from Microsoft.
Hardly a month went by in 2001 without a new horror story about security flaws in Microsoft's software.
Of course, it doesn't matter so much that you and I don't trust Bill Gates & Co. The problem is that the people who run big corporate computer systems don't trust Microsoft. They're the ones who buy PC software by the trainload and use the company's most expensive programs to run their servers, manage their databases, deliver their Web pages and generally conduct their business.
Hardly a month went by in 2001 without a new horror story about security flaws in Microsoft's software. Its Internet Explorer Web browser, Outlook e-mail program and Internet Information Server were hammered by a series of worms and viruses -- including Code Red and Nimda -- that clogged corporate servers and damaged thousands of computers. In November, holes in Microsoft's Passport authentication software left customers' financial information on e-commerce sites open to potential hackers.
But the worst news came after the October release of Windows XP, which Microsoft billed as the most secure version of Windows ever. It turned out that XP has a nasty security hole that could allow malicious hackers to take control of any XP machine connected to the Internet. On top of that, the Microsoft server designed to deliver automatic fixes over the Internet went on the blink.
This is not good news for a company whose .NET strategy for controlling a major chunk of Internet e-business depends on users' willingness to trust it with their most important financial information.
The mea culpa came directly from Gates on Jan. 17. In an e-mail to Microsoft's 47,000 employees, he said that henceforth, the company would be dedicated first and foremost to "Trustworthy Computing." By that, he said, he meant software that's reliable, secure and respects users' privacy.
"Today, in the developed world, we do not worry about electricity and water services being available. With telephony, we rely both on its availability and its security for conducting highly confidential business transactions," he wrote. "Computing falls well short of this, ranging from an individual user who isn't willing to add a new application because it might destabilize their system, to a corporation that moves slowly to embrace e-business because today's platforms don't make the grade.
"In the past," he added, "we've made our software and services more compelling for users by adding new features and functionality ... but all those great features won't matter unless customers trust our software. So now, when we face a choice between adding features and resolving security issues, we need to choose security."
Gates doesn't send these messages often. His last major issue-oriented e-mail went out in 1995, when the company was caught napping by the explosion of the Internet. He ordered his minions to stop what they were doing and dedicate themselves to making Microsoft master of the Web, and they made it happen.
So Gates' latest message is bound to resonate, and it will make Microsoft a very different place to work. That's because Microsoft has always been an extension of its founders' personalities. Gates and partner Paul Allen were hackers of the old school -- not today's criminals, but guys who loved to make personal computers do cool things.
They weren't worried about security because, in the early 1980s, PCs weren't connected to anything. In fact, the cool thing about personal computers is that they were just that -- personal. They symbolized the ultimate rejection of corporate computing with its regulations, security locks and grim system administrators. It was also a much more innocent age, when the notion of writing software to damage someone else's computer, just for the hell of it, was unheard of.
Although not many people remember it, Microsoft started out by selling programming languages -- tools that enabled software developers to write useful applications. It remains one of Microsoft's core businesses. Hundreds of millions of computers have been sold with Microsoft's version of BASIC, a simple but powerful language that enabled would-be programmers to learn the trade.
Microsoft developed versions of BASIC for Windows and extended the language to its own application programs, including Word and Excel. This allowed experienced programmers and ordinary users alike to customize their software.
Microsoft also included "hooks" in Windows to allow its word processor, spreadsheet, e-mail, Web browser and other programs to communicate and borrow each other's functions.
There's nothing wrong with this -- except that hooks and programming tools are open to everyone, including people who create macro viruses, Trojan horses, worms and other evil agents of the Internet age.
We live in a different world now -- our computers are less personal and more connected. For years, Microsoft has rewarded people who said, "Yes, we can do this," or "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do that?" Saying "no" to people who wanted to push their computers in new directions wasn't in Microsoft's constitution. Now it's priority one. Let's hope Gates means what he says.
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