|Home » Resources » Rants
Week of September 21, 2002
The archetypal march of lambs to the slaughter.
In HG Wells's The Time Machine, an inventor celebrates New Year's 1899-1900 by traveling to the year 802,701, where he finds a strange society of beautiful but passive people called Eloi.
Disenchantment sets in for our hero when he finds that the Eloi have lost all knowledge of independence, curiosity, and chivalry. But he meets the comely Weena and eventually discovers that this Eden is actually a human stockyard: the Eloi are just a pampered and husbanded food supply for the Morlocks, a race of hairy green subterranean monsters with glowing eyes and snaggle teeth.
In one particularly telling scene, Weena takes the inventor to the library, and for a moment the inventor's spirit lifts; but when he tries to page through a book and the pages disintegrate into his hand, he loses all hope.
The siren sounds, and the Eloi, beckoned and mesmerised by it, march off dutifully to the entrance of the underground dwelling of the Morlocks which has opened to receive them. The Morlocks are hungry again. When the Morlocks have enough Eloi inside the doors to satisfy their hunger, the siren stops, the doors close, and the Eloi still outside the doors wake up out of their trance and go about doing nothing as before.
This image has always been the archetypal march of lambs to the slaughter. Why were the Eloi so complacent? They were certainly beautiful, and they were peaceful and basically good innocent people too. But evolution had also favoured the Morlocks, and the Morlocks provided for the Eloi, so they could feast on them whenever they wanted.
Bear with me a moment, for I see a bizarre parallel with the way Windows users have meekly followed Microsoft through upgrade after upgrade. They could be likened to lemmings, but let's make it interesting and stick with science fiction.
Before David Cutler's sojourn in Redmond, the PC was primitive; and thanks to Dave and his team, Wintel users had for the first (and maybe the last) time a genuine operating system on their machines, an operating system that was truly worthy of the name. Was NT all that good? I think it was very good, yes. It certainly beat any widespread commercial product before it, and in my opinion beats anything after it as well.
Dave Cutler was of a different breed than the Microsofties in Redmond. He was never one of them and didn't want to be. And his so-called 'tribe' felt the same way. When David Cutler got the offer from Redmond, he took his entire Prism development team crosstown, including his hardware engineers (Microsoft had to hire them even though they had no use for them), along with his Prism source code tree.
Cutler left Redmond when Windows NT 4 was almost ready to ship - he'd had enough of Microsoft - and his team followed him out the door. The Tribe had no reason to stay on without their leader.
And when Dave left, the Microsofties took over. These inept clumsy people that constitute the normal caliber of programming in Redmond - these people were going to get to touch Dave's code. And the brouhaha with Digital Equipment had to be resolved, so the code had to be organised in a less embarrassing way without 'C:\Prism' at the top of the tree.
When I first published the 'one of the great hallmarks' article in RISKS, a lady from the Seattle area contacted me and sent me scans of press clippings. A dyslexic with a few academic degrees, she'd taken a position at Microsoft in 1991, only to find to her horror how bad things really were.
Ballmer began hiring sweatshop labourers on temporary green cards and without proper credentials to fill out Cutler's team - but Cutler didn't want them. They drove him crazy. These Microsofties, the lady told me, these bungling bozos couldn't even draw a flowchart. They had absolutely no clue about software design - they just winged it.
And now Ballmer wanted a GUI on the NT server and Cutler hated GUIs and so did his Tribe, and so a few Win16 hackers were injected into Cutler's circle against his will, and the relatively close-knit team of 200 quickly became over 800 and soon there would be substantiated rumours that Cutler was losing it, kicking and punching holes in the walls, and his friends would humour him by hanging picture frames over the holes. Microsoft was already driving the first real name in personal computing out the door. By late 1995 he was gone.
A few people such as myself gradually began to understand what a lift NT was. Not just that it was protected mode 32-bit, but that it was built by a real professional, and not the kind of idiot we all learned hung out in the far Northwest of the US. Cutler brought his vast experience to NT, and it smacked of quality.
Then Ballmer insisted on putting the Windows GUI on the thing and basically ruined it. And all the while Microsoft was getting into hotter and hotter water in Washington DC, and they were working at a panic pace to integrate IE into everything so the judges couldn't get it out. By now the dust had settled from Cutler's ride out of Dodge, and it was open season on Cutler code. This was the coming NT5 and it looked a real mess.
Lots of people warned about Win2K. The magic was gone, it wasn't Cutler anymore, it was those bungling Microsofties again, it was bound to be bad, who could trust the Microsofties anyway? Rumours poured in about dirty tricks going on with IE 4 and about a code base bloating to over four times NT's size. By the time the millennium rolled around, it was painfully clear Microsoft Windows 2000 was a bigger threat than two missing BCD digits in COBOL Working Storage.
And lots of people knew this. A lot of people understood this well. And yet, if you look at a cross section of Windows workstations today, how many of them are still running NT4 in preference to Windows 2000?
Windows 2000 started doing funny things right from the beginning. My good friend Blonde reported that Win2K had literally spit out her orb disk and flung it across her computer room, where the poor thing crashed into the far wall. I could hardly believe it - and yet when I flew home shortly after that and met with some of my IT training crew, I heard similar stories - Windows 2000 was mean.
Not to speak of all the ordeals Blonde had trying to make Linux and Win2K coexist. Linux was fine with the idea, but Windows 2000 seemed to want to bury Linux every chance it got, and Blonde's suspicion that it all was not happening by accident became a near certainty. With all the bad programming the Microsofties could do, they could still drum up the odd piece of EVIL CODE when asked to. They didn't worry about quality; they only worried about sticking it to the competition in the dirtiest ways possible. The Netscape people told me about all the preliminary startup code they needed for their Windows FE, just because IE would pull every trick in the book to stop them from launching. Stories popped in that people who extricated IE from their Windows operating systems found Netscape suddenly much more stable. Certainly it could not be a coincidence.
So why upgrade? Why indeed? But when the siren sounded, what did they all do? They dimmed their eyes and marched off to the Morlocks to be eaten alive. Now Windows XP puts Windows 2000 to shame in terms of pure evil, and it's happening again.
Ordinary PC users are not bad people; they're basically good, happy people. They don't know much about computing, but they're excited about this thing called the Internet, and they want to hook up. They visit their nearest shopping mall computer outlet and look around, and what do they see? Microsoft Windows Intel machines. Do they know any better? Of course not. Can we expect them to know any better? Really? Ignorance is bliss. They take their machines home and only then, and only gradually, begin to realise home computing can be a headache and a nightmare. Some of them believe operating systems are things that have to be booted every few hours, things that run out of what is known as 'memory' or 'resources', and that's the way it's always been.
These people don't hang out at the techie sites. They chat and surf and do their e-mail, and they use the tools that come pre-installed on their computers - Internet Destroyer, and LookOut, and MSN Scavenger - and this is computing as they know it. Their browser crashes, they get viruses and trojans, and they end up with singed fingertips. After a while a few of them might catch on, but they're not professionals, and no one ever expected them to be.
The furore over Windows XP made the outcry against Windows 2000 seem like a mouse squeak in comparison. Everyone everywhere was damning Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer and the whole Microsoft idea. Windows XP was evil, there was no doubt about it. Microsoft Product Activation wasn't designed to stop the real pirates, it was designed to trick ordinary home users into buying separate copies for their desktops and laptops. A lot of people started writing to Radsoft and asking if they could install their product on their laptops too, and our reaction was 'Waaaa? Who cares?' But these people had already been whipped by Microsoft, and they thought the question was the most natural in the world.
And the bugs. And Bill Gates's famous phony speech about being remorseful about the misery he'd caused the world through his software. And Trustworthy Computing gradually took on the form of yet another Belgian Blue cash cow - Bill was going to make people pay for bug fixes (remember when he told that German e-zine how silly it was to expect upgrades to fix bugs?) and he was going to yank at the carpet under the users' feet at will, just to keep them unsettled and never sure what operating system they were running.
Bill is trying to control the world from Redmond. What an unlikely place. And yet from this Morlock compound Bill is now planning to have a worldwide evil Windows XP update. And every XP machine anywhere, as soon as it connects to the Internet, will be victimised. Power. Meglomania. Leaving the user with exactly what?
Some users stand outside the entrance to the Morlocks' compound; they've survived so far. Yet the next time the siren sounds they might be the first to enter.
When people resist they give us hope: they're exercising their gray matter, showing us they have minds of their own. And yet - and hasn't it always been this way - as soon as the siren sounds, these same people who spoke out so vociferiously against the System of Evil go marching off to their computer stores and submit to the upgrade.
Once the inventor in The Time Machine tells his fantastic tale, he rushes back to his invention to return to 802,701. He will save the Eloi. He will be with Weena. It's a great ending: it gives us hope.