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Last Updated: Friday, 7 January, 2005, 14:37 GMT
Copying, content and communism
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, has been talking about the digital future. The other Bill, technology critic Bill Thompson, has been reading between the lines.

Statue of Lenin being removed, AP
Communism has not entirely died says Microsoft boss
Bill Gates thinks I'm a communist.

Not the old-fashioned state socialist concerned with five-year plans for boot production in the eastern provinces, but a "new modern-day sort of communist", the sort who "want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and movie-makers and software makers".

Admittedly, Mr Gates probably does not know who I am and I doubt if he spends a lot of time reading the BBC news site.

But he clearly thinks that those of us who are concerned about the restrictions on creativity placed in our way by the extension of intellectual property law, and those who oppose software patents, pose a serious danger to the US economy and Microsoft's profitability.

Gates made his comment about communism in an interview he gave to tech news site CNet just before he spoke at the opening session of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

It was an interesting aside, since it revealed just how much Microsoft is worried by the growing popularity of the free and open source software movement.

Patent pounding

Microsoft likes patents and protection partly because it has a lot of patents and can afford to employ expensive lawyers to defend them.

And it is clear from what Mr Gates said at the show that he has decided to bet the future of the company on finding lucrative ways to help the content industry - music, movies and games - reach consumers rather than just offering operating systems and applications to those who want them.

That means turning away from the idea that a computer is a general-purpose device that will process any sort of digital content into building systems that enforce restrictions and help rights holders exploit their customers more effectively in future than they ever managed in the past.

It means providing publishing systems to set up online music stores, writing operating systems that allow people to listen to music and watch TV or DVDs on any screen they can find, and ensuring that all of these systems incorporate the sort of digital rights management that provide ways for content owners to 'protect' their property by limiting copying, viewing or distribution.

Bill Thompson
we should not forget that Microsoft is big enough to make serious mistakes, retreat and then come back having learned its lessons.
Bill Thompson
It is a vision that puts Microsoft everywhere - not just as a software company but as the core provider of every component for our new digital lives at work and home.

It is also a vision that relies on controlling what we can do with the music, movies, games and any other forms of digital content we find on our hard drives.

Business software and commercial systems remain important, of course, partly because Office and other tools make a lot of money, but also because the technology we will be using in our homes is only the end point of a sophisticated and incredibly complex chain of integrated components.

Xbox Live, for example, is not just about the console in someone's living room, but relies on the network and a customer management service to let people sign up and pay.

It also needs a massive server farm to host the games in progress and let players communicate.

And setting up an online music store is a major e-commerce undertaking, even once you have sorted out the rights issues with the record companies.

Tough talk

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another unreachable aspiration from an egomaniacal geek, but we should not forget just how powerful Microsoft can be.

In his CNet interview Gates defended Internet Explorer against the increasingly popular Firefox browser, arguing that many people will have both IE and Firefox on their computers and will use both.

Bill Gates at CES conference, Getty Images
Microsoft is keen to be involved with digital media
And when he was asked if Microsoft would lose to Firefox he said "people who underestimated us there in the past lived to regret that".

Those of us who remember the browser wars, when Microsoft used its market dominance to undermine Netscape, know just what he means.

So while Linux, Firefox and even Apple may look like threats at the moment, we should not forget that Microsoft is big enough to make serious mistakes, retreat and then come back having learned its lessons.

In the mid 1990's it tried and failed to persuade US cable companies to run a version of Windows on set top boxes, believing that it would give it access to the broadband content market.

The cable companies did not like what Microsoft was trying to do and did not trust its software, and the plan failed.

But now cable companies like SBC Communications are running the latest version of the same software, and Microsoft's IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) work is beginning to take off.

It's the same with mobile phones. The first Windows smartphone, the SPV, was universally derided as buggy and unusable, but now it claims 61 operators in 28 countries are using the latest version.

And of course the second-generation Xbox will combine console gaming with home entertainment, network connectivity and many other functions.

If Microsoft has decided that the future lies with the content owners, using the increasingly restrictive laws on intellectual property to build and safeguard its markets, rather than with the hardware providers who are capable of building PCs, hard drive recorders, portable music players without copy protection, then we should all take notice.

Or in five years time it could be: "Where do you want to go today? - but get permission from Microsoft first".


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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