Vista Capable – Capable of Booting – And Not Much Else

Just a small quick one. Story in Computerworld about how 4GB is the optimal amount of RAM to run Windows Vista. Sure. Fine. Fair enough. Goes on to critique vendors like Dell who have “Vista Capable” machines. And what as does that mean, you ask?

For instance, Dell offers a Windows Vista Capable configuration that isn’t capable of much, according to what Dell says about it on its Web site: “Great for … Booting the Operating System, without running applications or games.”

I thought surely they must be leaving a bit out right? Nope. Not the case. That’s it. That’s all. Scroll down and see for yourself on the Dell site.

So, if you plan on buying a “Vista Capable” machine, enjoy, um, booting up your machine and, well, I guess, admiring the boot process as it boots.

Alarm Bells Over Vista’s “Fine Print”

I like Michael Geist. He’s a law professor at the University of Ottawa and writes a column in the Toronto Star. Not that agree with everything he says, but I certainly do respect the fellow. He’s a sort of Lawrence Lessig of the Great White North, for those of you from the US. A lot of what he says has merit, or at least is worthy of debate. But when I read his last column on how Vista’s legal fine print raises red flags, well, it left me scratching my head a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Microsoft is the world’s saviour or anything, and from the perspective of a user I’m not that keen on all the DRM stuff in Vista and the headaches it will cause in using protected content, but OTOH I did raise a bit of an eyebrow to some of his comments on the Vista license. Such as:

Vista’s legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user’s knowledge. During the installation process, users “activate” Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.

I don’t particularly like activation, but this is nothing new – Windows XP has activation and as for hardware information, I’m not sure how sensitive I would consider the make or model of my video card to be. I also find the reference to “deleting certain programs” to be a bit overstated. I wasn’t able to find anything about deleting programs in the Vista license I got from the MS website. It implies that Vista can suddenly go wild and start erasing other stuff you’ve installed. The only thing I was able to find was in Section 5(c), which says:

If, after a validation check, the software is found not to be properly licensed, the functionality of the software may be affected. For example, you may

  • need to reactivate the software, or
  • receive reminders to obtain a properly licensed copy of the software,

or you may not be able to

  • use or continue to use some of the features of the software,

Again, nothing particularly surprising – XP had the same thing – you don’t have validated software, you can’t use certain features of the software (i.e. Windows Vista, not other stuff).

Continuing on:

Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components. In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.

On revalidation, again, nothing new at least compared to XP – same complaints of course as well. As for backup copies – well, its pretty standard to only permit one backup. I’d prefer more but I don’t find it super-alarming to be limited to one. As for “strict limits on transferring” these are set out in Section 16:

a. Software Other Than Windows Anytime Upgrade. The first user of the software may
make a one time transfer of the software, and this agreement, directly to a third party. The first
user must uninstall the software before transferring it separately from the device. The first user
may not retain any copies.
b. Windows Anytime Upgrade Software. You may transfer the software directly to a third
party only with the licensed device. You may not keep any copies of the software or any earlier
c. Other Requirements. Before any permitted transfer, the other party must agree that this
agreement applies to the transfer and use of the software. The transfer must include the proof
of license.

I gotta say I don’t find any of the above particularly strict, onerous or burdensome. Before you transfer, you must uninstall and not retain any copies. The transferee must agree to the agreement. You must transfer proof of the license. Hmmm. Doesn’t seem that bad.

Then, onto Windows Defender:

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for “spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software.” The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software.

C’mon. There is a general understanding of what constitutes spyware and adware. And yes, “potentially unwanted software” is vague. But how then, should it be defined? “Bad stuff”? Interestingly he fails to mention the language that follows:

If it finds potentially unwanted software, the software will ask you if you want to ignore, disable (quarantine) or remove it. Any potentially unwanted software rated “high” or “severe,” will automatically be removed after scanning unless you change the default setting. Removing or disabling potentially unwanted software may result in
· other software on your computer ceasing to work, or
· your breaching a license to use other software on your computer.
By using this software, it is possible that you will also remove or disable software that is not
potentially unwanted software.

So Defender will ask you what to do (which he doesn’t mention), except for “high” or “severe” software, which it removes unless you change the setting (which he does). Well, I can understand the auto-removal thing. If it was left off by default (i.e. didn’t remove), then fingers would be pointed at MS at having lousy default security settings – a criticism often levelled (and, I think, justifiably so) at XP’s security settings – the rock on the other side of the hard place Michael identifies.

Then this:

Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated “high” or “severe,” even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.

C’mon Michael, that’s a bit over the top, isn’t it? Even “nice” spyware removers, like Spybot (highly recommended, btw) specifically warn that removing spyware might remove or cause other software not to work any more. Of course. Because many of the filthy, evil, nasty folks who distribute spyware or adware bundle it up with software that people actually want to use, and bundle it up in such as way that you can’t get rid of the spyware without killing the other software. Go figure.


For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that “this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights.” For those users frustrated by the software’s limitations, Microsoft cautions that “you may not work around any technical limitations in the software.”

Grr. Of course. Show me a commercial license that gives anyone “all” rights to use the software without restriction. Actually, even the GPL doesn’t permit that – there are still limitations and restrictions even in open source code as to what you can and can’t do. I don’t think its fair to point to this type of language and imply that Microsoft is up to no good here. Same goes with the last sentence. Sure, you can’t hack the software. Doesn’t surprise me.

I never thought I’d be defending Microsoft’s licensing practices. Not to mention questioning Mr. Geist’s criticisms of same. But there you go. Not that I necessarily think, OTOH, that you should go out and buy Vista. Though it is pretty.

Vista – A Love Hate Thing

A somewhat older story in The Enquirer (yes, I’m still catching up) about how, for the author, Microsoft Vista is not an option. The jist: Vista kneecaps its users with DRM, activation, etc. etc. etc.:

What it all comes down to is Microsoft is turning the screw on me too hard. I can’t legitimately use its software without becoming a criminal or spending tens of thousands of dollars. If it gives me a truckload of free copies, I will still be spending the majority of my time on the phone with people in Bangalore typing in licence keys to stay legal.

There’s also another, much longer article (more like a study) on how the content protection in Vista is a bad thing, to wit:

Executive Summary

Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in order to provide content protection for so-called “premium content”, typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it’s not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server). This document analyses the cost involved in Vista’s content protection, and the collateral damage that this incurs throughout the computer industry.

Executive Executive Summary

The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history [Note A].

The first article, from The Inq, well, yes, perhaps true, but it wouldn’t bother me all that much nor would I imagine most other users. Meh. The second, however, is a bit more disturbing. After reading through the headaches it introduces, it really makes me question whether PCs will ever make it to the living room in any meaningful way. On the other hand, it might not necessarily be Vista this kills altogether, but the market for the type of content its trying to protect with these measures.

I’ve actually tried the Vista RTM and do quite like it, though haven’t yet experienced the nightmares that both the above folks describe. So I got a feeling that notwithstanding the above, many others will feel the same, will buy it, and will live with the content limitations. And it won’t be the huge disaster that the two folks above foresee it being. Though of course, it would be interesting to see what happens if they are right…

Microsoft Patents RSS. Or Tries To. Maybe.

Interesting post on someone else’s blog about Microsoft apparently trying to patent RSS:

The applications, filed last June but just made public yesterday, cover subscribing and discovering what Microsoft calls “Web feeds.” That comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who’s been working on RSS, which has its origins in a format developed seven years ago at Netscape Communications.

Microsoft executive Don Dodge, while not involved in the patent applications, says he suspects the filings were made to defend the company against “patent trolls”. (The filings were made shortly before Microsoft announced plans to build RSS technology into its upcoming Vista operating system.) Still, if granted, the patents would give Microsoft a legal cudgel to wield against other companies using RSS.

Well. They do have a point. Generally speaking, I don’t think patent trolls (those that basically file overly broad patents and then sit on them in a dark cave until someone who actually does something useful, and therefore has deep pockets, unwittingly infringes, at which point the troll comes out and clubs them over the head with a lawsuit or settlement) are a good thing. That being said, its ironic that Microsoft feels the need to abuse the system in the same way as patent trolls in order to proactively defend itself. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Unfortunately, I’m not necesarily sure that prior art would necessarily invalidate these patents – after all, most of NTP’s patents were more or less considered invalid, but that didn’t stop them from collecting several hundred million from RIM. And its not like there haven’t been other, um, rather broad patents asserted in the past. You know, like back in 2002, when British Telecom asserted ownership of hyperlinks (which they lost) though of course BT doesn’t quite fit the description of a patent troll.

Then again, it begs the question as to who or what should or shouldn’t be considered a patent troll – for example, its well known that IBM has a huge, gigantic, enormous arsenal of patents at its disposal. IBM also actively licenses these patents (and of course threatens litigation where it believes its rights are being violated), but it isn’t necessarily the case that IBM would otherwise have exploited these patents in what I’ll call “active” business – i.e. making and selling something based on the patent as opposed to primarily seeking royalties and licenses from those do – even though IBM does do so in some cases. So does that make IBM a patent troll? What about Philo T. Farnsworth who, arguably, never started producing televisions but instead sought legal claims against others?

My perhaps overly simplistic take on this is that patent trolls are not inherently the problem, but rather the ability, primarily in the US, to register patents that should have never issued in the first place. If someone comes up with a smart, cool, inventive, and truly novel way of doing something, then they should certainly be free to either produce something with it, or sue the living daylights out of someone else who comes along and infringes the IP even if they don’t (or can’t) make productive use of it themselves. Not actively exploiting a patent is not necessarily tantamount to being a bad guy, IMHO.

It will be interesting to see what happens on this front, if anything. If nothing does, then I may well turn to drafting patents, the first being “Method of Utilizing a Rhythmic Cadence in the Expansion and Contraction of Multiple Muscular Groupings to Faciliate Indefinite Continuation of Metabolism of Cell Structures.” I like the sound of that. Yes indeed.