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January 10, 2002
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Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can't
By Jeremy Wagstaff

12/13/2001 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I'm frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?
I won't bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won't.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there's rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft's dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.
Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace -- AOL Inc.'s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It's hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: "Hmm! I think I'll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!" without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don't believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What's more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies' bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn't close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry -- the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer -- had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn't be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft's name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook -- the e-mail and contact-management program -- had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn't even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn't really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I've started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn't removed a simple old e-mail program I'd ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I'd recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I'd suggest you submit your own comments to the court (microsoft.atr@usdoj.gov or www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms-settle.htm) -- something you're entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like "flabbergasted" a lot.

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Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com




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Loose Wire: War Games
By Jeremy Wagstaff

01/10/2002 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I'm not going to venture an opinion on the state of the war against terror, but I'm probably the only one. Think you can do better than the military? Try your hand at Real War, which isn't just another warfare strategy shoot 'em up-well OK, it is, but it does have the added kudos of being "the commercial version of the official military Joint Forces game being used to train the United States armed forces." This may actually explain more than I'd care to know about the U.S. armed forces: if they're training on this then they're in trouble.

For one thing, the units -- tanks, aircraft, and ships -- tend to run over one another quite regularly. For another, they don't always do the logical thing when encountering an enemy, like opening fire on them. (Instead, the tanks move around aimlessly in the vicinity, a bit like dogs checking each other out.) Don't get me wrong, it's a fun game, and it extends the genre considerably. It's just, well, I don't like thinking the world is being saved for democracy by a bunch of guys whose training consisted of playing games like this.

A better bet, in my view, is World War III from JoWood, which has a bunch of features that raise the bar. First is the possibility of moving your point of view from high above the battlefield to right down next to the tanks you're controlling. The terrain is beautiful, including snowfall and clouds. The tanks sport headlights that flick on after about 7 p.m., depending on whether you're fighting in snowbound northern terrain or in the sand-spattered Middle East. Trains trundle disconcertingly past, even while you're in the middle of a battle. All in all, the game's worth it just for the view.

If you're looking for a less violent way to prove your worth, then you might want to try Tropico, which makes you president of a poor Caribbean island. Your task is to make people happy and become popular, but most importantly to stay in power. This shouldn't be too hard, given what a nice person you are, but as in any happy-go-lucky country there are always possibilities of violent overthrow -- from popular uprisings to guerrilla attacks to coups d'etat by your own soldiers.

Ominously, the instruction manual is peppered with short biographies of illustrious leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu, Manuel Noriega and Ferdinand Marcos, which serve either as cautionary tales or role models, depending on what kind of mood you are in.

For the less political, there's a welcome addition to games which are offshoots of Monopoly, that timeless board game that's bound to cause ruptures in even the happiest family gathering. Monopoly Tycoon, from Infogrames, matches the best of Monopoly, the game, with what computers have to offer. It has great graphics -- which actually show the sun going down over your town and street lights casting their pallid glow over the city -- and configurability. As a would-be tycoon you must beat your opponent to build a chain of shops and apartment blocks and juggle distribution, pricing and location to woo the city's fickle populace.

One that's definitely not for the kids: Dope Wars, from Beermat Software, now into its second version, is a kind of Monopoly game for drug dealers. Despite its somewhat tasteless premise, it's actually quite good fun, and there are enough warning flags for you to realize this is not an attempt to glamorize the seedy world of narcotics. Instead, you get a feel for the fact that, were it not illegal and highly destructive, drug dealing is a business like any other.

For glamorizing the tasteless, you'll have to wait for Hooligans -- The Game, a real-time strategy game where your objective is to become the most notorious group of soccer supporters in Europe. Designed by Dutch software house Darxabre, it was due for release in November but at the time of writing shows little sign of life.

That may be no bad thing: While their argument that games that involve killing, maiming and destroying your opponents are legion, there's something pretty sad about soccer fans causing mayhem in real life, let alone on a computer. Unless of course, the graphics are so good that the police cars have got cool headlights and you can see individual flakes of snow as they drift down across the finely detailed city, in which case perhaps the U.S. army could use the program for urban guerrilla training.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com


about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

my columns appear in
The Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Wall Street Journal Online.
both are owned by Dow Jones.

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