Us and them

I seem to recall a time when paying money for things made you a customer, and customers were a company's most valuable asset. These days, the customer is being overlooked and the focus is on the minority percentage of people who abuse 'the system'.

You're the enemy - did you know that? It seems that a kind of siege mentality has set into the computer industry at the moment, in which the white knights in shining armour who constitute the selfless, courageous paladins of the multinational computer corporate community are beset by evil blackguards, rogue peasants and bandits (that's you, of course).

In short, the gigalithic corporations don't trust you, and they don't even seem to like you that much.

There seems to be a rising wave of protectionism and right-wing retrenchment hitting the computer world at the moment; to me, one of the most disturbing by-products of this wave of anti-user paranoia is CPRM. Have you heard of this? I'll bet you probably haven't yet - it stands for Content Protection for Recordable Media. It's a set of proposed extensions to the ATA standard for hard drives, being put forward by a group called the 4C Entity - IBM, Toshiba, Intel and Matsushita – in which your hard drive would come preconfigured with special encryption technology that would "protect" files by preventing them from being moved or copied.

The winner is the content publisher, who can "protect his ownership", while the loser is obviously the end user, who suddenly finds that he can't defrag his drive, can't make backups or move the data to a new system ... And imagine what this would be like for a network administrator. CPRM blew up in a storm of controversy just before Christmas - for the full story, go to www.theregister.co.uk and search for "4C Entity" in the "Search" box.

At this stage, it looks like CPRM is going to face an uphill battle: computer notables like Richard Stallman have come out strongly opposed to it, and the Linux community has had a lot to say about it too. But this aside, the fact that the proposals made it to the committee stage without obvious consideration for the impact they would be likely to have on you, the end user, is broadly symptomatic of a malaise of distrust prevalent in the industry at the moment.

Another example is Microsoft's Registration Wizard in Office 2000. As I understand it, this wizard nags you to register or provide proof of registration every time you run the program, until (I'm told) 50 attempts are made, at which point the program no longer runs. Now, software registration is probably a good thing, but I do not see why I should be forced to register - I strongly object to that, just as I strongly object to providing my email address to websites before they'll let me log in.

Quite frankly, I don't trust firms like Microsoft with any more information about me than I can possibly avoid giving them. Microsoft's side of this story is almost certainly presented as spin about "providing better service", but in reality it's much more about their increasingly strident attitude towards piracy prevention. Clearly Microsoft now believes that every end user is a potential pirate.

Want another example? What about the current furore in this country over the government's desire to be able to invade your computer privacy any time it wants. Once again, you are perceived collectively as the shadowy predator - a potential force of evil, lurking on the fringe of the playground, waiting to pounce.

Then again, perhaps you are the enemy. There's no denying that software piracy is a serious problem, nor that strong encryption could be misused, nor that large companies need to protect their "bottom line" as the computer industry starts adjusting to middle-age and looming recession - and in all of these areas, you are part of the faceless multitude that's worrying the big boys.

Does being part of such a large threatening mass make you feel empowered? Strong? Potent? Personally, my only reaction is to feel somewhat vilified and more than a little powerless. I seem to recall a time when paying money for things made you a customer, and customers were a company's most valuable asset. These days, it seems to me that the customer is being overlooked more often than not, and that the focus is on the minority percentage of people who abuse "the system". Remember the old truism that the only person ever inconvenienced by copy protection is the legitimate user? Somewhere in the rush to deal with the abusers, the legitimate user has been forgotten, or at least marginalised.

Of course, the very fact that I'm saying things like this probably makes me a dangerous subversive element. Perhaps after this article is published I should dig out all my software licences in preparation for a raid, and have my house swept for bugs - after all, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet mail software Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris.

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