So here's the deal: I'm going to be contacting Robert Scoble at some point in the near future, because I have an idea that he may be able to start the wheels turning on. I'm writing out the meat of the idea here, so that it's available to him right away, and so that it's also in the public domain. Once I get this idea developed in writing, I want it to move as quickly as possible.
There are parts of Microsoft--who don't necessarily represent the company as a whole--who would have Microsoft be a benevolent, helpful giant, rather than a stomping, crushing, hegemonizing one.
Surely, a company this powerful has great potential to do good. And yes, I know about the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does good things, but it's a drop in the bucket when compared to what a company sitting on several billion dollars in cash could do for the world around it.
Anyway, I'm getting away from my point.
Scoble is one of these guys that is making a conscious effort to steer his company in a better direction. And he puts his money where his mouth is...a while back he pledged $5 toward Asian Tsunami relief every time he mentioned the word "blog" on his blog. Since then, he's been just looking for opportunities to do so, and joyfully.
So with a step in the right direction for Microsoft in mind, I propose this idea:
Make Windows 98 unsupported freeware.
First off, here's why.
1. The poor suckers out there still running a copy of Windows 98 that is so loaded full of spyware and other junk that the system is unusable, but they can't find the original Win 98 install disc and can't afford to take the machine to the local PC shop and get it worked on. These people need help.
2. The machines being designed and created for developing areas of the world need a very cheap or free OS included with them. Most of the companies working on this are looking at Linux-based machines. Free Win 98 may change that.
3. Home users again. If I've got enough spare parts lying around to build my kid a PC for cruising around on the net, Mandrake is free. Maybe I know more about how to use a Windows machine, but the free one will win every time. "Especially", I'll tell myself, "because he's a kid, and he's going to need to know how to use Linux down the road."
These are the broad strokes. There are dozens of small reasons and advantages, but Microsoft can make a real contribution to developing countries and be of real use to millions of families with computer problems just that simply.
We next need to deal with justification and implementation.
Microsoft, being what it is, will need more reason to let go of a former cash cow than, "Aw, c'mon, be good now." They're a big business, with big business concerns. Why do it?
1. The ongoing war on Linux. Let's be realistic and frank; Microsoft is doing poorly in this area, despite Linux's current weakness for use as a home computing platform. Surely they're not doing as well as they'd like. A free home OS from Microsoft, with an established user base already prepared for acceptance of it, surely wouldn't kill the Linux beast, but it would strike an unprecedented blow.
2. People using low-end systems in developing countries with free operating systems will naturally move on to use newer computers with the same or similar operating systems on them as the ones they learned on. Do you want that shiny, new OS to be a BSD or Solaris variant? No! Every shiny new box with a shiny new Microsoft OS will make you money. So pretend that India and China are American educational institutions and give them a freebie...Windows 98.
3. The raging piracy problem in hotspots around the world. What if your users used a free copy of Windows 98 instead of a pirated copy of Windows XP Pro? They might, if Microsoft makes it easier to get hold of the free one than the pirated one.
4. Public opinion. News of Microsoft releasing a full OS as freeware would rattle through the worldwide media so loudly, you'd hardly hear anything else for a week. If Microsoft loudly declared the above reasons for the move, it would strike a serious blow to the "I hate M$ because they're so very, very greedy" techie establishment. Those are compelling reasons, and these guys know a good argument when they hear it.
How? Will it be a lot of work that will bring no direct bottom line benefits? I don't think so. Here's why:
1. Most of the work has already been done. Windows 98 is a good OS. It's not perfect, and it can't hold a candle to any NT OS from Windows 2000 on, but for the vast majority of users, it's better than functionally adequate. Make three little changes.
a. Remove the install requirement for a license key. Just tell the install routine to skip that part.
b. Make it a stand-alone, self-install from CD-ROM process, a-la NT. No more floppies and fdisk-ing.
c. Post an ISO at Microsoft.com for the whole world to pull down and burn to a CD, just like the Linux guys do.
2. Don't officially support the OS. No more Windows Updates, no patches, no nothing. The Windows geeks of the world will rise up and fill the gap, creating an instant support community. Most of this work has already been done, despite Microsoft's past aloofness to geek communities. These guys are doing fantastic work on this front.
I'm beginning to get away from my broad strokes approach. I need to post this. I need to call Scoble. Before I get too busy for another week, or doubt that Scoble will listen, or what have you. I've got to get this done, ADD be damned.
I just made the call, and got Robert's voice mail. He probably didn't answer because it's 10pm here and 9pm in Seattle. I told him about my email to him, with a link to this blog, so hopefully he'll take a look and let me know what he thinks.