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Gates justifies stronger chains for hardware makers

PC companies obeying orders equals partnership, equals better integration

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The Register first noted Microsoft's plans to seize control of the PC standards-setting process over two years ago, and we're therefore pleased to see the final confirmation that this process is now in place - Bill Gates is denying it. Actually the denial, which comes in an interview with Associated Press, represents a welcome post-antitrust return to form - Bill is arrogant, implausible, and couldn't give a stuff about non-Microsoft systems.

The Athens communications PC, which Gates had unveiled just before the AP interview, is exhibit A here. Athens is the result of close co-operation between Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, and in that sense follows up on the Media Center PCs, which again started out as a buddies deal with HP, and on Tablet, where a couple more special friends were involved in the initial design process.

Gates pitches this kind of relationship as representing closer co-operation and better integration between Microsoft and the hardware vendors, but the way it works is rather more brutal than that, and is approximately as follows. Microsoft decides on specific packagings of hardware and software that will give a 'new category' of machine a sales edge and help Microsoft extend its reach further across the new items of hardware that are included. The selected 'special friend(s)' can generally be given a short exclusive on the new category (e.g. the first Media Centers were HP, HP will also likely get first run at Athens), so they're not about to argue too hard about what will actually be in the standard. On the contrary, they will make volume commitments, contribute technology (HP's particularly handy here), and spend big time on marketing Microsoft's new standard for it during the exclusive period.

And everybody else in the hardware business has little choice but to come chasing along behind. So in the case of Athens, we have Microsoft putting it all together with HP first, then telling the rest of the industry:

"Call to Action: For system manufacturers and PC hardware vendors: Microsoft is encouraging the PC industry to incorporate 'Athens' PC design concepts in their product plans." Essentially, anybody who isn't HP right now probably has a list of things they've read about in the announcement and need technical data on, and an enquiries email address. Redefines partnership, doesn't it?

Now, in Bill's World, the process sounds more like this: "What we're doing is saying let's have the best of both worlds. Let's not give up the PC model of many people making different choices and putting those into the marketplace, but let's get rid of some of the impedance created by the organizational boundary between us and those partners." So he is not in fact deciding what's going to happen, co-opting HP's support then telling everybody else to do it, but is getting "rid of some of the impedance created by the organizational boundary between us and those partners." Got that?

This impedance-ridding process naturally results in new hardware configurations specified by Microsoft and with early support from Microsoft software becoming the standard, so what about Windows alternatives? Asked about this, Gates says: "Our responsibility is to make Windows better and better. Other people are responsible for those systems." Microsoft is now far more powerful than it has ever been, and is setting the hardware standards for the PCs you will have to buy far more overtly than it ever has before, yet here's Bill singing that old song again. Microsoft s only responsible for Windows, and bears no responsibility for your software not running on the hardware Microsoft has specified. The fact that Microsoft hasn't given you the information to write the drivers is your problem, and it's as if the antitrust trial never happened.

Compare and contrast with the old days of Wintel PC200x as the standard. Then, there was a certain amount of tension, with Microsoft trying (and often succeeding) to morph it from a general PC hardware standard to a Windows-specific one, but with PC200x still providing a detailed and public roadmap that could be followed by Microsoft's competitors. Now it's entirely Windows, and only the parts Microsoft wants to become public go into the public domain, as and when Microsoft decides to put them there.

If you needed any further proof that the old Bill Gates is back, and just as horrible as before, this week he's also been telling the press that NBGDRM (aka Palladium) is cool and no problem, because if people don't want it they can always just not use it. Speaking to AP (again - haven't they been busy?) he said: "This is a mechanism that if people want to use, for example, to protect medical records, they can use it. It's a lot of work to do this stuff, and we think consumers will want those privacy guarantees. If they don't want them, then fine, ask me about our other work." So it's optional - like, we suppose, IE. ®

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