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.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland