Moving beyond the Microsoft monoculture
by Glyn Moody
For the last 15 years we have been living in a Microsoft monoculture, which has had very real knock-on consequences for everyone online – not just for users of its products. Today, though, that monoculture is fading away, to be replaced by something much more complex.
It's the end of an era – for UK journalists, at least. Thanks to the clever new site called churnalism.com, it will be possible for readers of mainstream news sites to check whether the article they are reading is simply a re-hashed press release. As the site's FAQ explains:
The site compresses all articles published on national newspaper websites, on BBC news, and Sky news online, into a series of numbers based on 15 character strings (using a hash function) and then stores them in a fast access database. When someone pastes in some text and clicks 'compare', the churn engine compresses the text entered and then searches for similar compressions (or 'common hashes'). If the engine finds any articles where the similarity is greater than 20%, then it suggests the article may be churn. Churnalism.com is powered off the back of the database of over three million compressed articles in journalisted.com.
I know I have nothing to fear on this score – not so much because I don't re-hash press releases (although I don't), more that I look at them so rarely there's no chance of my articles being infected by PR copy even by accident.
One reason that I no longer look at press releases is because nearly all of them in the field of computing make one, huge, annoying assumption: that the entire world uses Microsoft products. This means that the vast majority of press releases are not just irrelevant to my needs, but positively insulting to my worldview.
And there is a particular circle of journalistic hell reserved for PR companies that send out press releases about the very latest terrifying, deadly, apocalyptic virus that I simply *must* know about. Because these too assume that everyone is using Microsoft products, and therefore don't even bother mentioning the rather relevant fact that it is generally *only* those benighted souls still staggering through the Microsoft miasma that are affected.
That omission is not some minor detail, because it blurs the distinction between malware and Windows malware. As a result, it leads non-technical users to assume that malware is a universal and unavoidable fact of computing life, and that you just have to accept that your machine will be trashed every so often, and your bank details stolen once in a while, and that you will always have to fork out what is literally protection money to one of the anti-virus companies for constant updates to their software (unless you know about free software apps like ClamWin, of course.)
What all this overlooks, of course, is that other operating systems – notably GNU/Linux and MacOS – are barely affected by these problems. To be sure, malware does exist for them, but is so rare that few of us ever see it (I certainly haven't in the last 15 years of using free software). So this apparently “trivial” omission of information – that all these deadly viruses and trojans are actually for *Windows* systems – does a huge disservice to the readers of churnalism based on them (particularly when it comes from a nominally serious news organisation like the BBC). That's because it fails to reveal that there are alternatives to Windows that are far less susceptible to these kinds of attacks, and that would enable users to avoid many of these problems that they put up with on a daily basis.
The bad news is that the disconnect between how things are reported – as if people only used Windows – and the reality, is getting worse; the good news is that it's getting worse because we are finally emerging from the Microsoft monoculture that encouraged such lazy churnalism in the first place.
The death of the Microsoft monoculture is most evident in the world of browsers. After the collapse of Netscape, Microsoft's Internet Explorer was not so much a browser as the internet itself for most people. Accessing the internet meant clicking on that blue “e”. Microsoft's dominance was such that it stopped trying: Internet Explorer 6 was released in 2001 and was not replaced by version 7 until 2006 – an eternity in internet time.
Today, Internet Explorer is losing market share rapidly, and is down to 56% according to a recent survey. But just as significantly, it's not only Firefox that is gaining: Google's Chrome has over 10% (with Firefox on 22%). What we are seeing is the emergence of a browser world with three significant players. That's clearly even better than replacing one monoculture with another, even when the latter is open source.