Windows for the Dead
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April 15, 2002
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    Paul Clark  
    August 29, 2001
    Windows for the Dead

    Critics have accused Microsoft of refusing, for years, to learn from politics, arguing that Redmond’s attitude of superiority left it wide open to antitrust attack. Well, Bill Gates has obviously learned his lesson. He’s apparently mobilized the graveyard vote in opposition to the government’s lawsuit against the company.


    For 200 years, broad-minded political operatives in charming municipalities like Chicago and Boston have shed the prejudice most people feel toward the involvement of dead people in the political process. Chicago mayor Richard Daley was famous for his liberal attitude toward graveyard voters, and why not? Life’s bad enough when you’re six feet under without being excluded from our political rituals.

    Now, Microsoft is showing the same concern for the well-being of the dead. The L.A. Times this week reported that Microsoft has organized a widespread, and well-camouflaged, letter-writing campaign in support of the company. Two of the letters, the paper reports, wound up on the desk of Mark Shurtleff, the attorney general of Utah, one of the states that joined the federal government in suing Microsoft, bearing the signatures of corpses. Dead people want Windows too!

    You’ve got to love Microsoft. Some companies try to make themselves lovable to generate customer support. Others pretend to be lovable, which shouldn’t fool anyone, but does (Don’t you just love those warm ‘n’ fuzzy Met Life ads with the “Peanuts” characters? Insurance is lovable! Really!). But Microsoft is so clueless about how to make itself lovable that the only way it can think of to so is to buy love. If that doesn’t work, forge it.

    The Times said Microsoft had gone to “great lengths” to disguise the fact that the pro-Redmond letter-writing campaign was, in fact, whipped up by Microsoft front groups. “Letters sent in the last month are printed on personalized stationery using different wording, color and typefaces–details that distinguish those efforts from common lobbying tactics that go on in politics every day,” the paper reported.

    I’ll say. Microsoft may be clueless, but you’ve got to admire that level of sneakiness. It’s brilliant, in a way. My home base, Washington, is on the receiving end of a deluge of citizen mail and e-mail, much of it, because it is mass generated by special-interest groups, promptly ignored by legislators. Most lobbying groups haven’t figured out that 800,000 form letters opposing H.B. 90210 count as one, in their senator’s mind. What better way to disguise lobbying than to use all that Microsoft typographical horsepower to make it look like a wave of independent protests against government perfidy?

    Noam Chomsky, that most lovable of political crackpots, continually refers to “manufacturing consent.” Well, Microsoft is apparently manufacturing dissent. It’s oddly appropriate, as Microsoft and Chomsky share a worldview based on mysterious conspiracies. Of course, is the world was as conspiracy-driven as Chomsky claims, he would have long ago been found dead under a parking lot in Langley, Va. — still clamoring, doubtless, for Windows XP. Likewise, Microsoft, seeing anti-Bill Gates conspiracies in every pot, must feel perfectly justified in waking the dead from their well-earned slumber to support making Internet Explorer a system-level function.

    Of course, in this, as in so many other things, we in the telecom industry were the true pioneers. Impressed by dead Windows users? Why, a full two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission flung a $2 million fine at Qwest Communications for slamming, among others, a man who had been dead for eight years and a dead dog. That’s right, a dead guy and an ex-dog named, of all things, Boris, apparently approved change orders for telephone service. The actual customer had listed the phone in the dog’s name for security reasons.

    That’s a class act. On the Internet, no one may know you’re a dog — but, face it, dogs don’t have opposable thumbs and have a hard time using pens. I always wondered how Qwest got that canine corpse to sign. I have a mental image of Phil Anschutz, in his massive chairman’s suite, stamping a stack of change orders with a dog paw-bone and an ink pad.

    If this were a Dave Barry column, I would be forced at this point to point out that “Boris and the Dead Dogs” is a great name for a rock band.

    So now we know that the dead love Windows. It makes a weird kind of sense — who better than the dead to appreciate an operating system that dies so frequently? I envision a whole new series of Windows slogans and error messages:

    “Where do you want to go today? Nowhere, because you’re dead!”

    “Your application just performed an illegal operation — but you don’t care, because you’re dead!”

    “Explorer.exe caused a page fault in module … heck, why am I telling you? You’re dead!”

    Some people criticized Qwest, and will doubtless criticize Microsoft, for making commercial use of the dead. I confess I can’t follow their reasoning. For too long, dead people, probably because they’re not photogenic, have been seen as political and advertising liabilities. Maybe Microsoft and Qwest are taking the first bold steps toward a world in which megacompanies can truly judge customers and political pawns on their potential usefulness, rather than the, after all rather technical, issue of whether or not they are still breathing.

    A recent Halloween episode of a television sitcom involved characters repeatedly asking each other whether or not they believed in vampires. “Of course,” came the invariable reply. “How else do you explain Yoko Ono and Priscilla Presley making money off the dead?”

    Now, because of their courage in the face of longstanding prejudice, we can add Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to the list.


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