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Microsoft and Google’s Pathetic, Revealing and Frightening War

If it wasn’t so harmful, it would be funny: a marketing battle between the two technology giants MicroSoft and Google over who lacks integrity and is exploitative. It’s been going on for a while and with every thrust and block the thing becomes more grotesque and more revealing.

First, by way of introduction, well…you don’t need an introduction.

If you’re using Windows, your computer lives MicroSoft. If you don’t, you use a MicroSoft product (like Word or some smaller program you don’t notice on your desktop) or someone sends you stuff using one. You can’t escape MicrosSoft if you use a computer.

Google is to your Internet life what Microsoft is to your workspace. Even if you don’t use its increasingly popular Gmail program, you have used Google Search at some point. So prominent is our use of this resource that, in English, “google it” is now an accepted phrase. No, there is no Google-less life in this country.

So a marketing duel between these two fills the air with the very loud clanging of the very large swords.

The latest thrust is MicroSoft’s campaign about “Scroogle”: a term that meshes Google and Screwed, or maybe “Scrooge” (since it launched around last Christmas). It also pilfers the name of an alternative search engine (Scroogle Search) that went belly up last year. If it didn’t steal someone else’s idea, after all, it wouldn’t be MicroSoft.

In December, MicroSoft began denouncing Google’s charging for better rankings in its “shopping” searches and telling people they should use Bing (MicroSoft’s search engine) instead. That’s right, when you do a “shopping” search on Google, it returns a list of search items from companies that pay Google. The more they pay, the higher they are in the returned search. If you click it you can read Google’s admission about taking filthy lucre in return for returning a good search position.

Try it. Go to

Google’s Shopping search

and put a product in the search box. You get a list of items arranged like any Google search and that little disclaimer to the right. It’s advertising not searching and Google’s microscopic link is legally compliant but not very transparent.

This month, MicroSoft has a new campaign denouncing Google’s email system, Gmail, for going through people’s email and extracting information to be used for marketing research, advertising and sales. One of the most prominent campaign tools is a website:

Scroogle!

whose “Get the Facts” section explains what Gmail does. It’s pretty horrible.

But none of this is new information and it is very doubtful that any of it is going to change market share. So, the question arises, why do this now? The answer is a lesson in the life of capitalism on the Internet.

The fact is that these two big kids spent years playing nice. Google did search and other stuff your computer does on the Internet while MicroSoft did the programs your computer needs to run and do things, including get on the Internet. It was a nifty use of boundaries to facilitate peaceful exploitation but capitalism, in the end, respects no boundaries. So, in 2007, MicroSoft launched a search engine, Bing ( whose homepage is here ), while Google launched a web browser called Chrome and its Gmail email program.

War was declared and it wasn’t hard to see it coming. The common denominator in these two company profiles is their planned ubiquitousness. While profit has always been the motive, control and domination has always been their strategy. Stunningly brazen and stupified by their success, they openly admit they want to control your life and their marketing pitch is to convince you that you’re so much better off when that happens.

The problem is that they have run out of life to control and so they are now fighting over the aspects of your life they already dominate and that they have increasingly limited.

One of the problems with corporate cultural domination is that it squeezes the creative life out of any human project. Not only do these companies control what they offer, they make it difficult for other kinds of developments, protocols and technologies to organize and thrive.

There are alternatives to Word or Gmail (I’ll list some at the bottom of this article). But more important, there are alternative ways to do what those programs do — from communication to information sharing to organizing networks of servers. Many of these new approaches veer away from one to one communication or use of a central server to distribute information. They would stoke the fires of political organizing and opposition because they’re often more democratic, more in line with the robust freedom of communication that’s the reason for the Internet. But with these companies waving their repressive wand through lawsuits and clogging up market, money, talent and interest, it’s hard to get people involved in these alternatives.

The “secret” to software development that the big companies keep from you is that you need lots of people involved, not only developing a program but using and testing it and letting developers know what works and what doesn’t. This is done through large, on-line communities but to get large, they must know about the software and the companies do everything in their power to make sure that doesn’t happen. In the techie culture, the critical question is who gets to appear on the conference panels, write the articles in the note-worthy publications, and get mentioned or interviewed on the right blogs. Large corporations strive to control the spotlight by sophisticated public relations, sponsorship of conferences whose attendance fee increases ever year and careful monitoring of and participating in the message boards and mailing lists.

There is no question there has been a change and the percentage of techies who use proprietary software (like MicroSoft’s and Google’s) and only know about that has unquestionably grown. The conversation is too often centered on those companies’ software and the alternative projects are neglected. Soon enough, they are jettisoned on someone’s hard drive.

The trick to control of technology is to grab one idea, boost it and make sure no competing ideas arise. But then you end up shrinking people’s expectations and routines in using the Internet and technology. If they don’t know there are alternatives to email, you can only dominate the market if your email program is the dominant one.

To be fair, MicroSoft has a point. No matter the disclaimer, Google knows that most people who search on “shopping” don’t realize they’re seeing paid ads and the company’s scouring of your activities, particularly your email, is intrusive, invasive and potentially damaging constitutionally.

Google insists that it will never “abuse” the power that excavated information gives it but the issue is “what’s abuse?” If the government wants that information, there is no way Google is going to resist. All the Feds have to do is say you’re suspected of some crime and Google will give what it has. So you have to trust the Feds that they won’t “go overboard” but, of course, going overboard is the federal government’s birthright. Besides, how do you know what Google actually has? It admits that it takes some information for advertising and marketing only but this is the company that does advertising in the disguise of a search. Do you really trust its “admissions”?

It’s important to remember that, before pulling out of China with great fanfare, Google cooperated for four years with a government whose interpretation of Marxism is often “repeat after me” by limiting searches and disallowing many types of results. It was only until China’s other search engine, Baidu, clearly beat Google in the user sweepstakes and it became clear that people could use Hong Kong Google (which has no such restrictions) or some workaround, that Google made its dramatic exit.

Is this a company you want to have a picture of your life?

On the other hand, hey, look who’s talking! Bill Gates’ creation is a monster of arrogant, bullying domination: forcing people to use its software by making deals with computer manufacturers to install its second-rate browser and bizarrely designed operating system on every computer they sell; using a horribly restrictive and unstable licensing system that usually means you can only use a licensed software package on one computer (an unbelievable abuse!); and filling your hard drive with hidden software that captures information (and sends it to some MicroSoft server someplace), prevents you from doing what you want, monitors your every move and literally takes the machine over.

Windows Operating System is like HAL, the computer that takes over in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We’re so used to it that we don’t always recognize the abuse but sometimes you want to do something with your computer and Windows won’t let you! That’s MicroSoft’s contribution to your life; that and the long list of broken and buggy software it has practically forced on the purchasing public.

To make things even uglier, MicroSoft is among the most litigious companies in human history. It has sued someone over virtually every program it produces and, in the case of Windows, has filed several lawsuits a year for years. This despite the fact that Windows itself started out as a poor copy of the MacIntosh desktop and Operating System and most of MicroSoft’s creations are actually “stolen concepts” — the idea comes from someone else and is taken and “developed” into a new Microsoft program.

But what is most irritating about this latest MicroSoft campaign is that it’s predicated on a false comparison. Gmail, for all the nastiness it carries, is not only an email program but an email service. When you use gmail, you use the servers Google has set up to handle email. Microsoft Outlook is only an email program. You get it, you configure it and you use some commercial or non-commercial email service.

MicroSoft has told the industry publications that it is using “advocacy techniques” to market its products but that only serves to underscore the obscene culture of twisted perception that this company thrives on. You don’t advocate by telling lies, obfuscating important nuance and attacking people who are doing what you’re doing. Just the opposite, in fact.

MicroSoft, Google and other mega-companies will continue to grow and tear into each other until they fall apart. And they will fall apart because their future is based on the ebbing fortunes of a system that is falling apart. For us, the issue is how that will impact our lives and work.

We live in a world where a fierce struggle is taking place between people who believe the Internet is a source of freedom and information and those who think that information is a commodity and freedom is limited to the right to sell it. Those sellers lie and cheat and punish and inhibit and each of us who uses their products needs to decide how necessary the evil actually is.

As promised, here are some Free and Open Source alternatives to these companies’ products:

Instead of MicroSoft Office there is LibreOffice

For browsing: Firefox

And email: Thunderbird

(In linux, the browser and email program have different names — Iceweael and Icedove — but they are basically the same code).

Disclaimer: I am a founder and leader of May First/People Link, an Internet membership organization whose members pool our money to equip, run and share email services, among other Internet capabilities. Some would say that makes us a competitor of Gmail; at the very least, part of our mission is as an alternative provider. But we founded May First/People Link not to compete with these commercial services but to work in the movement that will eventually make them unnecessary and I don’t think like this because I’m in May First/People Link, I’m in MF/PL because I think like this.

ALFREDO LOPEZ is the newest member of the TCBH! collective. A long-time political activist and radical journalist, and founding member of the progressive web-hosting media service MayFirst/PeopleLink, he lives in Brooklyn, NY

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Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

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