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Love DRM or my family starves: why Steve Ballmer doesn't Get It

Ballmer digs pit, inserts whole MS strategy, keeps digging

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Last Sunday Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off this week's European tour by sitting down with a small group* of British journalists and dispensing pearls of wisdom, notably on the future of Apple in home networking (it has none, natch, says Steve). He also did at least one interview, with the Financial Times (published in Tuesday's paper), remarkable largely because it inadvertently revealed the Microsoft High Command's paucity of ideas - if this is all Steve's currently betting the company on, then Microsoft is in big trouble.

But the Apple stuff, particularly the ill-informed 'iPod users are thieves' slur, is worth examining in some detail, because it shows that Steve doesn't Get It, that Microsoft doesn't Get It, and points us to the reasons why they don't Get It. Microsoft, essentially, is pre-programmed to fail in the battle for the home, for consumer electronics, and for consumer digital services.

First at Silicon.com, CNET's representatives on Earth for the day, Ballmer was reported as saying of the digital home: "There is no way that you can get there with Apple. The critical mass has to come from the PC, or a next-generation video device," and: "We’ve had DRM in Windows for years. The most common format of music on an iPod is 'stolen'." At which point we deduce, British journalists being British journalists, the headline "iPod users are thieves, says Ballmer" formed in thought bubbles above the heads of every hack present.

Skip dealing with the slander though, and cut straight to what passes for damage-control in the wonderful world of Ballmer. This was delivered at a TechNet briefing in the Hague on Tuesday, and commences: "I don't know what I said exactly, but it was bad." The report elaborates this as follows: "When asked which MP3 player his son used, he answered jokingly, 'My son doesn't have an MP3 player. He has a Windows Media player.' Everyone in his household knows that the protection of intellectual copyrights is important, he said. 'It's what puts food on the table.'"

This is enough for us to be going on with. We have first, the old Microsoft PC religion being applied to the home, with Apple (and indeed everybody else) consigned to the dustbin because "the critical mass has to come from the PC", and second a statement that amounts to iPod users having to be defined as thieves, otherwise Steve's family starves (or more believably, Microsoft dies and Steve's family just stops getting richer). Both of these are statements of belief, religious in the sense that they are non-negotiable and not necessarily true. Both, as it happens, are false.

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