MS' antitrust backup plan: Net monopoly

Or the next Microsoft Bob, depending....

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If the appeals process should ultimately decide that Microsoft really does have to be broken up to rectify its software monopoly, the company - or companies, in that case - can always seek to monopolize something else crucial to computer users: access to software.

With the role of software gatekeeper, or handmaiden to the world's software gatekeepers, in mind, the Microsoft .NET initiative continues to swell, reaching into more platforms and products, and most recently into the latest edition of Systems Management Server, likely to be named Topaz.

In a recent press release, MS points to Nabisco's glowing satisfaction with Systems Management Server, which "streamlines software distribution by enabling Nabisco's IT administrators to target specific applications to certain groups of users - such as loading a spreadsheet application on the machines being used by each of the company's finance employees - regardless of where the individuals are located".

If that sounds like something verging on Information Technology Paradise, wait, there's more.

"Systems Management Server also can determine the physical location of any machine on the network and what software is being used or loaded there, which helps Nabisco oversee its large number of leased computers and prevent unauthorized software installations."

Excellent news for any big licensee which needs to keep track of such minutiae; but we can't help noting that it would also be a wicked tool for commercial software hosts (ASPs) dishing up leased applications to retail consumers and small, home-office enterprises.

We also can't help noting that Whistler, Microsoft's candidate for a consumer OS based on the fairly reliable Win-NT kernel, includes provisions for enabling and synchronising on-line/off-line files just like a business OS, perhaps in anticipation of exponential growth in commercial application and file hosting.

And there's more and more. "Metering capabilities in Topaz help system administrators more accurately track statistics such as which applications are running on a desktop at any given time and how many copies are running system-wide - crucial knowledge for companies that must comply with usage limits in their software licensing agreements," Microsoft points out.

Crucial knowledge as well for anyone who might wish to manage software on someone else's box. We've imagined MS moving into software hosting since it bought Great Plains Software, an accomplished ASP (Application Service Provider); but now we see that the Beast is just as eager to play handmaiden to others in the same line.

The company has long exhibited an amusing tendency to push harebrained schemes on its minions of wall-to-wall-MS consulting shops, and take its cues from their experiences before committing to its own ideas. And it hasn't committed to software hosting; it's merely been laying the foundations for it lately.

The question, of course, is whether software hosting has the kind of mass appeal that MS depends on to generate gargantuan revenues. The company is obviously putting out the tools needed to make it happen; but we imagine the minions will have to make or break the scheme at their own expense before the Beast announces any intention to participate.

Not to worry; there's good money to be made in the mean time, selling the necessary kit to those with bollocks enough to assume the risk.

Will it work?
Widespread consumer rejection of software hosting is hardly an unthinkable outcome, in spite of several rational arguments in its favour. Sure, it might be cheaper in the long run; sure it means immediate upgrades. But human beings are possessive by nature, and a significant number may never quite cotton to the idea that something they paid good money for should be controlled by someone else.

Furthermore, the level of access to an individual's computer required to make hosted software commercially feasible is problematic. Human beings cherish their privacy, when the modern world lets them have a tiny scrap of it, and they can be expected to hate most passionately the idea of some remote administrator mucking about on their HD in search of access violations.

The small business user MS claims to be targeting with this scheme might also be not quite the patsy a mass-market business model would demand. The minority of enterprises too small to hire a proper Webmaster or sysadmin might get by with casual and absurdly cheap assistance from members of their local high-school math club.

Slightly bigger operations might find 'hosted solutions' easier and cheaper than hiring a small, competent IT staff, but beyond that, it really does seem better to maintain control of one's own business tools.

"It's a big generalization to say that because you've been unable to find a good system administrator, it's not generally the right way to go. What's good for some small minority of companies is not necessarily going to be good in general practice," renowned Microsoft critic David Niemi told The Register.

Properly marketed, and with a bit of luck, software hosting could become a hot property; and MS .NET, clearly, will be there offering all the tools to capitalize on it. But it could just as easily become the next pet rock, the next CueCat, the next Microsoft Bob, Niemi reckons, due to a lingering sense of independence, self respect and common sense among those expected to buy into it.

Not to mention outright loathing. ®

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