Microsoft almost pulled a fast one on me today. As usual, those sly foxes love to play the fools, only to turn the tables when you least expect it. I eventually saw through their brilliant subterfuge, but it was a near thing.
For years, I thought I knew better than to underestimate the bunch at Microsoft. I dealt with a lot of those folks over the years, and they were invariably smart, engaging, interesting people. But today, I decided there must be at least one dim bulb flickering somewhere in Redmond right now. There was no other way to explain the utter, complete, mind-boggling stupidity befouling, of all things, Microsoft's security efforts.
To make matters worse, this Microsoft Mystery Moron seemed to be motivated by the kind of short-sighted greed one usually associates with sitcom villains. A Microsoft product manager behaving like Boss Hogg on bad Quaaludes? Sad but true, it seemed at the time.
What kind of behavior deserved such harsh words? According to a Feb. 24 BusinessWeek column by Stephen H. Wildstrom, Microsoft recently distributed a patch for a critical security exploit in MSN Messenger--an exploit so critical that the company denies Messenger access to users until they install the patch. When they install the patch, Messenger users are asked, of all things, whether they want to "Make MSN My Home Page." To help them decide, Microsoft helpfully pre-checked the box that confirms the change, leaving users who don't read the fine print wondering why their browsers suddenly displayed MSN upon startup, as opposed to Google, or a blank page, or Linux Pipeline (ahem!), or whatever their home page used to be.
Sounds crazy, right? Wait--the plot would thicken even more. Wildstrom noted that when the current test version of Microsoft's new anti-spyware program detects an attempt to hijack a user's browser, the program steps in to stop the evil deed--and then helpfully directs the browser, by default, to use MSN as its home page.
In other words, Microsoft was spending millions to promote itself as a trusted provider of security software, and then spending millions more to develop products that ape the spyware they promise to eliminate. It didn't make any sense, unless Redmond was suddenly concealing a nest of crudely venal Darwin Award candidates.
Then lightning struck--maybe it did make sense. Maybe I'm the dim bulb here. This isn't stupidity, it's genius. Microsoft won't have to waste time chasing spyware purveyors, because the company will drive them out of business the same way it destroyed so many other competitors: by including the same product, free of charge, with every copy of Windows.
If this is Microsoft's plan, open-source developers will have to move fast, because there isn't much time. Clearly, we'll need an open-source spyware initiative to give users an alternative to Redmond's simmering malware monopoly. As with everything else in life, discriminating computer users prefer a wide variety of scams, schemes, and appalling overseas porn sites to which their browsers can suddenly affix themselves, instead of settling for Microsoft's mediocre spyware efforts.
If we can get Spyzilla (catchy, huh?) onto the street in time--perhaps as a Firefox extension--Microsoft might have to settle for 90 or 95 percent of the spyware market. Let's face it, that's still quite coup for Microsoft, but at least it's a start for those of us who prefer to have our browsers hijacked by Eastern European sociopaths, thank you very much.
Once again, it seems like we're playing catch-up to a company that constantly demonstrates why it hires only the best and brightest. And it's all because we keep falling for Microsoft's ploys to disguise marketing genius as the work of greedy boneheads.