Fallows@Large January 2007

Sympathy For, Yes, Microsoft

Vista's worldwide release is greeted in China with in-your-face piracy

As indicated earlier, I have not had a completely blissful experience trying out the pre-release versions of Windows Vista and Office2007. But I completely believe what I wrote a few months ago in the Atlantic: these are both very good products and well worth buying.

Office’s improvements are immediately visible in a snazzy, elegant, fit-and-finish way. The most important changes in Vista are largely invisible internal improvements, although it also has a gee-whiz factor in its “Aero” graphics presentation system, which is notably more attractive than any previous Microsoft standard. This new feature of Vista requires (as the new Office does not) more raw horsepower than most computers bought before 2006 are likely to have, which is one of several reasons why it makes sense to buy Vista pre-installed on your next computer but not to upgrade the one you already have.

So I respect and appreciate what Microsoft has achieved — and empathize with them after reading in today’s English-language (and state-controlled) Shanghai Daily that, on the very day the software first goes on sale worldwide: “As always, Microsoft will have to battle piracy, as Vista knockoffs are already being sold on the street for 10 yuan.” Ten yuan, or kuai, is about $1.30. The headline on the story read, “Microsoft’s Vista hits stores as pirates hawk it streetside,” suggesting that the situation is not entirely hidden from the attention of the authorities.

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Yes, Microsoft should price legit versions of its software more affordably in China. The list price for Vista, 2000 kuai and up (about $260), is two months’ wages or more for many Chinese people. Yes, those 10-kuai disks are likely to prove nightmares for whoever buys them, from the malware and viruses that may be built in to the predictable trouble with Microsoft’s “activation” system. Still, if the Chinese government cared, surely it could do a little better in controlling this most blatant form of first-day-of-release, in-your-face piracy.

After all, they’ve jostled the pirate-video industry to the extent that it’s become pretty hard to find a decent 6-kuai version of a film within a month or two of its release!

Disclosure #1: In 1999 I worked at Microsoft for six months on the team designing WordXP.

Disclosure #2: Vista does have one feature I find entirely maddening. It is called “User Account Controls,” and if you turn it off, it will issue chilling warnings that your computer is at risk. If you turn in on, it will drive you nuts asking for “are you sure?”-style confirmations on essentially anything you ask the computer to do. I have chosen to live dangerously and turn it off.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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