China and the Salvation of Windows XP

Pacific Century Starbucks, Beijing
Dust in the wind
1343 hrs.

Galen Gruman at IDG publication InfoWorld has done the technology industries a community service, building a petition signed by 100,000 computing industry professionals imploring Microsoft to continue selling Windows XP after June 30, the date Microsoft plans to remove the older version of its personal computer operating system from the shelves. Getting 100,000 IT professionals to do anything together without the incentive of a free t-shirt, free software, or an opportunity to meet females is quite a trick, so IDG’s survey is an illustration of how emotional this issue has become for those of us not using some flavor of Linux or Mac OSX (our favs here in the Hutong).

At least, it is an illustration of how emotional this has become outside of China.

While I am certain Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would say that the (relative) lack of uproar in China about the impending forced-march upgrade to Vista is due to the fact that Vista is the most loved OS in China’s history, I beg to differ.

I would say piracy is the reason for the silence.

Jack Sparrow, Vista Killer

People are somewhat less worried about the availability of Windows XP in China because they know that XP will be available here for as long as anyone wants, and for a very small price. (Without Microsoft support, certainly, but available.)

Microsoft has made tremendous progress against piracy in China over the past several years. The problem is far from beaten, but the company has more than doubled the percentage of people paying for their Microsoft software.

But by taking Windows off the shelves, Microsoft appears to be creating a perverse incentive for people who might otherwise buy legitimate software to resort to piracy. Indeed, Microsoft appears to be creating the ideal conditions for a thriving market in illicit copies of Windows XP after June 30, and not just in China.

Certainly, Chinese users who prefer Windows XP to Vista will have few compunctions about turning to one of the thousands of enterprising vendors to be found on our city streets for a budget-priced DVD if they cannot find it in legitimate places, like Federal Software or on the hard drive of their new computer.

But it won’t stop there. Microsoft is almost inviting China to play a leading role in the global anti-Vista backlash. Imagine, if you will, hundreds, even thousands of visitors passing through China during the Olympics, picking up a copy or two of XP to take home.

Imagine IT consultants all around the world continuing to install those copies of Windows XP in new computers – for a service fee.

Imagine computer dealers and manufacturers offering (nudge nudge, wink wink) to install XP in the new computers as an option. It will certainly happen here in China.

Imagine a thriving online marketplace in downloads of Windows XP.

It will happen. Commerce, like love, will always find a way.

What Microsoft would kill, pirates will revive – and sustain.

Inviting a Challenge

In fact, the issue is already causing many people here in China to wonder whether there is a legitimate principle (under fair use or some similar legal tenet) that wokuld support enterprising merchants who wish to sell – or give away – copies of a software product for which there is a continued, legitimate demand after the manufacturer has removed it from sale.

We in the Hutong are no fans of IP pirates, nor are we particularly fond of people who break any law because compliance is inconvenient. We remain firm believers that creators of intellectual property have the right to be rewarded for their efforts. We believe that if you disagree with intellectual property (IP) law, the proper response is not to ignore the law, but to change the law or challenge its underlying principles.

By pulling XP from the shelves when people still want to buy it or use it merely to compel people to spend more money on (what they believe to be) an inferior product, Microsoft may be opening a legal can of tubular invertebrates, if not in the U.S., certainly in China.

The root of legislation is perception, and the perception that Microsoft may be taking advantage of intellectual property laws to hold users over a barrel may be just enough to incite a legal challenge in China not only to Microsoft, but to the core of the relatively young body of law protecting the rights of software companies.

The logical principle is this: if Microsoft stops selling an IP-based and there is still a market, could a case be made that Microsoft has abandoned the product, and that the law should allow for someone else to sell it?

Even Galen Gruman, no man’s idea of a socialist, suggests in his InfoWorld article that the very ubiquity of Windows has made it a public good supplied by a private entity, thus subject not to the normal system of rules regulating commerce, but to those principles that govern utilities like the power grid, phone service, and air transport. Galen’s implication is that the Windows case calls for a suspension of normal rules, if not direct government intervention.

Policy makers in China, who have long watched Microsoft’s growing power with consternation, will likely at some point join their counterparts in the European Union as activist watchdogs over Redmond’s global business practices. Stung by what they see as the America’s overenthusiastic use of intellectual property law to protect its creative an innovative companies, the Windows XP issue may well provide the high ground for China to take a stand against a flawed body of intellectual property laws imposed on China by its WTO accession.

That’s a slippery slope.

Thinking Beyond Vista

No doubt Microsoft wants Vista to succeed. What worries me is that the company’s leaders may well have convinced themselves that Vista must succeed for the company to survive.

It is time for Microsoft’s leadership to take a step back and ask themselves if killing XP to save Vista isn’t a step too far, and to recognize that the unintended consequences of their efforts could have a far more deleterious long-term effect on the company’s prospects than would the failure of Vista (and the continued success of XP).

Wisdom Before Passion: David Mamet on American Politics

The Silicon Hutong Suite, Singapore
Contemplating a hotel without room service
1822 hrs.

If you are getting caught up in the frenzy of the US elections and all of the triumphalism around Eliot Spitzer’s spectacular self-destruction, you might share my despair at the partisan grease pit back into which American politics are sliding.

David Mamet offers some salve in his article “Why I am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” in The Village Voice. Mamet makes a reasoned and subtle appeal for a more even-headed approach to the world.

I could probably write a similar article “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Cold-Hearted Conservative’,” but I’d rather read my own political evolution into Mamet’s writing.

McDonald’s Mary Dillon on Olympic Sponsorship

In the Hutong
Stressing about my physical
2119 hrs.

AdAge interviews McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer Mary Dillon on Mickey D’s plans for the big event this summer, including bringing 200 kids from around the world to Beijing.

The Darfur question comes up of course, and it’s pretty clear that McD’s is not going to be walking away from the Olympics.

Pretty clear though, that nobody is yet asking the big question: does Olympics sponsorship deliver return-on-investment?

Congress Watching: The National People’s Congress Website

In the Hutong
Fasting before the physical
1938 hrs.

For those of you keeping an eye on the National People’s Congress sessions and want a break from all of that hard journalistic coverage, the official website of the NPC is here.

Not much there as of this writing, but the public proceedings should be available. Check out the NPC’s main site as well.

And for those of us in Beijing, get ready for two weeks of traffic jams.

Hollywood Icon Comes East

In the Hutong
Rolling with the changes
1842 hrs.

The Hollywood Reporter, long essential morning reading for the entertainment industry in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, has had permanent roots in China for a couple of years now, with an official bureau led by Jonathan Landreth. The THR staff have provided a much-needed addition to the coverage of the music, film, television, and new media industries here in China. With occasional exceptions, however, much of the fine reporting coming out of THR in China has been trapped behind a firewall.

That all changed today, when THR launched The Hollywood Reporter Asia, a website that not only allows us to see the superb coverage coming out Jonathan and his team here in China, but also regional and global industry news. One other thing I really like about THR-Asia is that it is edited right here in Beijing, underscoring Beijing’s growing role as the media center of the region.

Give it a look. Personally I’m adding it to as part of my daily routine. If I have one quibble, it is the lack of an RSS feed, but I understand that with THR offering their content for free, they want you in the site for the ads. A small price to pay.

Picture 2

A Tale of Two Actresses

In the Hutong
In search of a pain reliever
2027 hrs.

Whatever you may think about the relative merits of entertainers leaping from the screen and onto the world stage, we were treated this week to a profound contrast in the styles and approaches of two young actresses.

Exhibit A is Marion Cotillard, the 32-year-old French actress who won the Academy Award for Best Actress a little over a week ago for her apparently inspired performance as Edith Piaf (yes, I too am a philistine and had to Google it) in La Vie en Rose. In an interview from a year ago broadcast on a French website, she proclaimed that the 9/11 attacks were a hoax manufactured by the US government for political ends, and that the twin towers were demolished because they were obsolete.

Without supporting or debating the veracity of Ms. Cotillard’s claims, suffice to say that we here in the Hutong appreciate a good conspiracy theory in the same way we appreciate good science fiction – great stuff with which to tickle the frontal lobes, maybe even ask a few hard questions. But as most bloggers learn fairly quickly, when one takes a public stand that is in direct opposition to popular perception, one had best be very, very sure of one’s facts and be prepared to support one’s stand through effort and action. Sadly, Ms. Cotillard goes no further than voicing an opinion that begs for support.

Exhibit B is Angelina Jolie, also 32, also an Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted) who in her capacity as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees decided that rather than snuggle up to the armchair activist crowd, she’d hop on a plane and head for Iraq and see what was going on. From her Thursday op/ed in the Washington Post:

“My visit left me even more deeply convinced that we not only have a moral obligation to help displaced Iraqi families, but also a serious, long-term, national security interest in ending this crisis.”

She continues:

“As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part fo the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.”

Her conclusions are hardly those of an expert, and her focus is exclusively on the issue of the 2.5 million Iraqi refugees for whom she seeks repatriation. More than one pundit has questioned her qualifications to speak on behalf of all of the troops deployed in Iraq. Nonetheless, they are startling because they come from an unexpected source, and because of the inevitable reverberations they will send through celebrity salons on both coasts – not least the circles in which she and husband Brad Pitt circulate.

(For the record, I don’t feel qualified to make a call on Iraq either way, so I won’t.)

Again, leave aside your own opinions on the specific matters at hand. To me what is germane is the difference in approach. Two young women, each given the opportunity because of fame earned on the screen to voice their opinions on larger matters to their audiences, chose to make use of their bully pulpits in incredibly different ways. One chose to make the kind of flippant, uninformed remark more appropriate to a conversation with close friends. The other chose to take the time and risk to journey to someplace she could learn more, then share her thoughts and findings – whatever they’re worth – with others.

Regardless of what you may think about Ms. Jolie, her motivations, the appropriateness of her remarks, or her qualifications to even make them, you must applaud her quest to learn a little something of the subject before volunteering so public an opinion.

A wise old sergeant once told me: “Wolf, opinions are like a**holes: everyone’s got one, and they all stink.”

The only way I would dare to correct that is to say that the more informed your opinion, the less it stinks. That is the lesson I will take from Ms. Cotillard and Ms. Jolie.