Microsoft - bad for consumers and the environment?

Sian examines how the big computer companies operate. Are they bad for consumers and the environment

You probably noticed that Microsoft launched their latest operating system ‘Vista’ this week. Three years late and containing about half the promised innovations, it’s already in for criticism, not least from me and my colleague Derek Wall, Male Principal Speaker for the Greens.

We are not only disappointed Vista isn’t better, but have some serious concerns about consumer rights and its impact on the environment too. The comment I made in our press release on Tuesday that, “Future archaeologists will be able to identify a ‘Vista Upgrade Layer’ when they go through our landfill sites,” was rightly spotted as a minor exaggeration, but I was trying to illustrate something significant.

The point is that thousands of bits of hardware like graphics cards, monitors, and even whole computers, may be junked when people upgrade to the new operating system because Vista is either too memory-heavy or just too pernickety to run on perfectly good equipment that, in some cases, is practically brand new.

The main problem is the new ‘Digital Rights Management’ tools built into the system. These insist that any piece of hardware used to play high-definition music or videos formats like Super Audio CD, High-Definition DVD and Blu-Ray, must use Microsoft approved encryption codes. If monitors, sound cards and graphics cards do not, the content will not play at all.

Unfortunately, until very recently no hardware had these codes included, so even a supposedly ‘high-definition ready’ monitor bought six months ago, won’t play ‘premium’ DRM-protected songs and films and will need replacing, leading to a lot of nice equipment in skips and landfill sites.

I discussed in my previous blog, ‘Sian’s been very naughty’ how, as a consumer or creative artist, there are 'fair use' copying, viewing and recording rights we are all supposed to have in law. But these are being denied by new DRM technologies like those in Vista. As a consumer, you should have the right to back up (i.e. make a copy of) things in your library for your personal use, and you should have the right to choose which video screen or monitor you use to view it, including your old one.

In fact, DRM is not a feature that has any benefits at all for the end-user. In fact, its only reason for existing is to protect the profits of big corporations. And Microsoft isn't doing all this just to please Hollywood and the music industry - they hope to set the price for copy-protection The Microsoft Way – and make a lot of cash.

And in case you’re taking all this in and thinking of getting a Mac instead, Apple is a big culprit in the whole DRM scandal as well, through iTunes. Apple iTunes users might be beginning to sniff out the fact that their music collection is slowly being locked into a format over which they have little control. Each song bought is a 79p commitment to stick to Apple's store and iPod players, since iTunes songs cannot be legally transferred to another format. This is at last attracting the attention of some consumer protection agencies, so far in Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and France.

And going back to landfill nightmares, how many iPods have you been through so far? It appears that many of these cute little machines are breaking down suspiciously soon after their warranty runs out, and that Apple provides precious little support for repairing them after this happens. People are therefore obliged to replace their iPod with another one when it dies (since no other brand of more reliable mp3 player will play the proprietary iTunes format) and consumer groups are starting to object. The ‘Stay Free’ group in New York, as well as setting up the iDud campaign, is making the best of the situation and asking for broken iPods to turn into art. If you have a couple tucked away, why not send them in?

None of Apple’s machines are as green as they could be either, containing more toxic chemicals than many other hardware brands, which is why Greenpeace in the USA has produced a clever skit based on the iconic American adverts featuring their Mac and PC characters (now being reprised here with newly sold-out comedians Mitchell and Webb).

This is staring to sound very depressing. If we’re all sleepwalking into a conglomerate-controlled, Blade Runner future, what’s the answer? The Greens believe that ‘Free and Open Source’ software (FOSS) is the model to look at.

We'd advocate that more technical people look at the open source Linux operating system. But even if you aren’t a techno-nerd, there are plenty of individual open source tools and programmes that will work on your current computer. You might already have the Firefox web browser installed, seeing as it had the popular ‘tabbed’ layout long before Internet Explorer 7 took it up, but there are loads more, including whole suites of useful software such as Open Office which, for businesses, schools and government, is an increasingly practical option. I'm typing this on Open Office, for instance, and it works completely fine. Why not try it? It's free!

Other FOSS programmes that might come in handy include Scribus for professional document production (it’s rather like Quark or InDesign) and the Gimp photo editor (clearly not named by a marketing guru!).

Back in the music world, independent record labels have started to experiment with unprotected mp3 downloads, deciding to trust the fans. I think it's worth betting that if you like a band, you'll want to pay for their music to keep them writing new songs.

Other artists collaborate by sharing music files under 'creative commons' licenses where they give you free access to the files, but ask you to respect their conditions – for example by giving them a credit, or not using their work for commercial projects, such as adverts.

The net could even bring us right back to the way things started by directly supporting artists, making art ourselves, and generally by-passing the commercial middle men. But not, of course, if Microsoft and their friends have their way.