The top 10 telecommuting traps

Most IS managers focus on the myriad technical details when developing a telecommuting program. However, personnel, psychological, and legal issues can overwhelm even the most technically perfect program. We discuss the top 10 reasons why telecommuting programs fail and how to prevent them. Issues are presented in reverse order of importance.

10 Insufficient Support Infrastructure: Because they often work extended hours or in a different time zone, teleworkers can stretch an enterprise’s support infrastructure. Teleworkers cannot easily give their machines to technical support when problems arise, nor can technical support use remote-control tools to troubleshoot remote computers if the employee’s problem is with remote access. Solution: Train telecommuters on remote workstation configuration and maintenance before they begin to work from their home offices. Train the support staff on the remote-access environment and consider expanding the hours for which technical support is available.

9 Insufficient Security Policies: Teleworkers typically require full access from home to all the system resources that would be available to them within the enterprise. But it can be difficult to validate the teleworker’s identity. Solution: Revise security policies to address the issues regarding employees working in a home environment (e.g., corporate use of personal computers and personal use of corporate computers should be discouraged, and sign-on and authentication procedures should be strengthened).

8 Union Difficulties: Many unions feel that telecommuting interferes with their representation and collective bargaining power. Solution: Approach union leaders early to construct a program that is acceptable to both the enterprise and union.

7 “Quantifiable” Productivity Gains Aren’t Achieved: Too frequently, the enterprise embraces telecommuting to attain a mythical 20 percent increase in user productivity. However, changes in productivity are difficult to measure; many knowledge workers don’t have quantitative (or even objective) performance metrics. Solution: Rewrite performance metrics for all eligible job roles to focus on objective, output-oriented metrics, and train managers to use the new performance metrics.

6 Teleworker Productivity Declines: Telecommuter productivity usually declines in the first six to 10 weeks of the program’s implementation. These decreases are due to insufficient training in using the remote workstation, isolation from the workgroup, and inexperience in filtering out distractions at home. The productivity decline is generally temporary but can dishearten the telecommuter (and the enterprise), leading to high dropout rates. Solution: Minimize the impact and duration of the productivity decline with proper training. A telecommuter training lab can provide an excellent introduction to telecommuting, and lets employees practice setting up and maintaining remote equipment.

5 Overall Productivity Declines: Without sufficient workgroup tools to support on-line and off-line collaboration, overall productivity will decrease as the workgroup disintegrates. Solution: Encourage communication by publishing home office numbers and work-at-home schedules so that coworkers feel more comfortable calling the teleworkers. Longer term, modify workgroup processes to take advantage of collaboration tools.

4 Employee Morale Drops: Without formal policies that define employee eligibility, available equipment, the amount of telecommuting that will be supported, and other details, a telecommuting program can result in lower employee morale. Unevenly distributed telecommuting privileges can lead to frustration. Solution: Establish policies that outline eligibility requirements.

3 Budget Overruns: Although many think telecommuting can help reduce operating expenses, telecommuters are more expensive to support than their office-bound counterparts. According to GartnerGroup’s 1998 study of remote-access total cost of ownership, a full-time telecommuter can cost as much as 124 percent more than an office-bound worker in terms of equipment, support, and voice and data communications. Solution: Perform a thorough cost/benefit analysis at the beginning of the project and allocate enough money to support the program.

2 Legal Morass: When deploying telecommuting, the enterprise must ensure that it is in compliance with all local, regional, and national regulations. Solution: The legal department should provide guidance in all stages of the telecommuting program and should review all telecommuting policies.

1 Management Reprisal: Many telecommuting programs (even those initially driven by end-user demand) find a surprisingly small number of volunteers for the program’s pilot or deployment stage.

This is mostly due to employee fear that management will look harshly at people who do not work in the office. A lack of consistent productivity metrics enhances the fear that “out of sight” will mean “out of mind.” Without sufficient participation, telecommuting programs tend to be canceled after about a year. Solution: Managers must be convinced of telecommuting’s benefits and should be trained on how to work with remote employees. Management buy-in is the single most important prerequisite.

VPNs for Small Businesses

New products make it more affordable for small and medium-size businesses to take advantage of virtual private network (VPN) technology. VPNs have attracted the attention of large, distributed enterprises because they let businesses create links across public and private networks to customers, branch offices, and telecommuters for less money than the cost of a traditional private network.

The choice of which VPN is best for a smaller business often comes down to how much programming you are willing to do. One such product that you can use to build a VPN inexpensively–although you’ll have to tinker with it a bit–is Microsoft’s BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS). SBS delivers elements of its parent BackOffice suite, including NT 4.0 Server, Exchange Server 5.0, SQL Server 6.5, Proxy Server 1.0, fax and modem services, and a simplified administration console. Another product, Lotus’s Domino Intranet Starter Pack (DISP) 2.0, includes the Domino 4.6.1 server, five licenses for either Notes or browser clients, and the SiteCreator tool for generating and managing 12 business applications.

Novell has Microsoft’s SBS in its sights with NetWare for Small Business (NSB) 4.11, which combines a single-site version of Novell Directory Services (NDS) with GroupWise 5.2, NetWare Multi-Protocol Router, Network Address Translator, Netscape FastTrack Web Server, and other third-party database, fax, virus, and backup products. Netscape has no small business suit; instead it partners with Concentric Network Corporation to offer Netscape Virtual Office, an on-line intranet center hosting private discussion, e-mail, calendaring, and other applications for a monthly fee. Microsoft continues to upgrade NT Server, which is part of SBS, with capabilities that improve its viability as a VPN platform. The NT 4 Option Pack, Routing and Remote Access Services (RRAS) update, and Service Pack 4 add an enhanced IIS 4.0, Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS), Microsoft Message Queuing Services (MSMQ), Index Server, Certificate Server and SSL 3.0, and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), all for free if you already have NT Server. You can upgrade Small Business Server to take advantage of NT’s new tools with careful planning. RRAS lets you tunnel into a PPTP-enabled server, and then to any workstation on the internal network. However, this defeats the security provided by Proxy Server 1.0, forcing an upgrade to the 2.0 version that supports packet filtering.

You’ll also need to apply a new Proxy Server hotfix to repair support for multihoming (the ability to host more than one site on a server), as well as an SBS service pack to allow use of Internet Explorer 4.01. Still, the hotfix and service pack upgrades are free, and the cost of the Proxy Server upgrade is just $505, which makes this solution almost $2000 less than buying BackOffice 4.0. The SBS solution won’t be suitable for some scenarios. For example, SBS disables NT trusts between domains, limits SQL Server database size to 1GB, and does not support Exchange directory replication. These changes cripple SBS’s flexibility for use in satellite offices. Microsoft is readying an upgrade path from SBS to Back Office 4.0 that will add the full version of SQL Server 6.5, Proxy Server 2.0, Exchange Server 5.5, Systems Management Server (SMS), SNA Server, and Site Server, but at press time, pricing was not determined. While SBS, RRAS, and the Option Pack provide the infrastructure for business-to-business communications, you need programming expertise, especially in Visual Basic and Visual InterDev, to make it all work. Domino Intranet Starter Pack on the other hand, comes ready with a secure, browser-based application suite.

Contact management, customer tracking, company forms, job postings, project management, registration, discussion, and document library databases are all part of the package. You can manage sites remotely via a browser or the native Notes client. Lotus’s DISP includes the latest Domino server and on-line documentation, but you’ll need to buy the Notes Designer client to customize or add applications. Domino 4.6.1 comes with a Certificate Server and sample registration templates for SSL 3.0 client authentication, but DISP only uses the less-secure password technology. Multihoming will not work with SSL certificates; the work-around requires partitioning with the more costly ($1000 additional) Advanced Services version of the server. NSB, DISP, and SBS are tactical products, balancing a mix of features and services that evangelize their underlying architectures without cannibalizing full-blown suite sales. Novell is counting on GroupWise’s user friendliness and advanced document management tools to retain mind share in the face of NT’s application services momentum. Lotus continues to provide a Web-based application development environment that outperforms Microsoft in its own NT backyard. And Microsoft moves steadily forward, integrating security, messaging, indexing, standards-based file formats, and directory services that the competition can’t afford to give away.

Weaving the Post Factual Internet

I live in Santa Cruz, CA. When I left home this morning to drive over the hill to San Jose, I was surrounded by fog. Winding along the highway up into the Santa Cruz mountains, I rose above the mist into the sunlight. Green redwoods towered above the road. I looked back over my shoulder at the low lying gray clouds that obscured the California coast. Dazzled by the sunlight, I thought back on the experience of driving through the shifting gray swirls of mist and decided that it was an experience not unlike browsing the Internet.

We live in the age of spin. Most people who write the prose we read on the Internet do not even pretend to be interested in telling the truth. Instead, they pride themselves on their ability to "spin the truth," that is, they are professional liars. These writers don’t like the sunlight. Instead, they prefer the mist, the fog, the places where facts are hard to discern, and nothing is clear.

In his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, taught us to shun cliches such as "spin the truth." He warned that people who indulge in slovenly language often end up, either consciously or unconsciously, hiding the truth in a swirling bank of fog.

The heart of George Orwell’s essay is a plea for simple, straight forward language. A phrase like "spin the truth" is not only a cliche, but it is also what Orwell calls a "verbal false limb." Orwell writes, " Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill , a verb becomes a phrase , made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render." In this case, simple verbs such as lie or dissemble are replaced with a verb phrase such as "spin the truth."

We live in a post factual world. When confronted with an inconvenient fact, politicians, marketers and bloggers never acknowledge its truth. Instead, they attempt to "spin" the facts, to distort reality. Such behavior is so common that most of us no longer blink when confronted by even its most blatant expressions. We believe that WMD simultaneously exists and does not exist, we think the definition of the word "is" might be open to interpretation. The sin is not confined to any one party, it is universal. It is the mist in which we walk each day. It is easy enough to climb up out of the fog, but few take the trouble to make the hike.

Hotbeds of Post Factual Writing

The Internet provides a new twist to the problems outlined by Orwell. All over the web one can find specialized web sites designed to push a particular agenda.

One of my favorite web sites is called Slashdot. This is a place where people who like Linux and Open Source, but who oppose Microsoft and proprietary technology, can get together and talk shop. The site consists mostly of links to interesting articles about technology. On the Slashdot site, people can comment on the articles. There is a certain class of people on Slashdot who can be counted on to exercise all of the sins outline in Orwell’s article. In their attacks on Microsoft and proprietary software, they are often angry or even personal.

In email, in blogs, in the comments found on places like Slashdot, the Internet is rife with hostility masquerading as opinion. The art of writing clear prose that states facts without hostility is rare. People prefer to bludgeon one another with words rather than attempt to communicate. If no facts are handy, an insult will do just as well. It’s not enough that someone disagrees with an opinion, the opposition won’t rest until they have claimed the contrarian is stupid, immoral and sexually inadequate.

As I say, I enjoy Slashdot. Nevertheless, I often find it impossible to read the comments on the articles linked to from the site. The articles themselves are often interesting, but the community often seems to exist in a post literate world where being considerate is a form of weakness.

SlashDot, however, is only one of many sites that pander to particular world views. These sites are the frontline in the post factual Internet.

Even neutral sites such as Amazon are hotbeds of anger and deception. Go read the reviews of nearly any controversial political book found on Amazon, and one will find plenty of "reviews" written by people who clearly have never read the work in question. After all, if the book is written by Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, there is no need for many people to actually read the text in question. Instead, they pretend to have read it and offer up a series of insults and groundless abstractions that they believe add up to a meaningful review.

The Deceptive Power of Abstractions

George Orwell’s essay focuses on political speech. In today’s world, however, the political and the social have blended in a way that was hard to image in 1946, when Orwell wrote his essay. This blending of politics and social interaction is nowhere more evident than on the Internet.

Orwell writes: "Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality."

Since 1946, when Orwell wrote his essay, most of us have forgotten Marshal Petain, the French war hero from World War I who helped the Nazi’s when they occupied France during World War II. But we know instinctively what Orwell means. We have all read phrases such as "Oliver North was a true Patriot," or "Daniel Ellsburg was a true patriot." In each of these cases, the word patriot has been redefined to represent a post factual interpretation of the word "patriot." It doesn’t matter what the dictionary says, the word now has a new meaning that only the author fully understands. The list of words that Orwell specifies has morphed over the years, but we can replace them with modern tag lines such as paradigm, patriot, free market, relevant, free election, terrorist, freedom fighter, conservative or liberal.

Bringing this subject back down to technical matters, we often hear abstract words used to describe an OS or a computer language. By now, many of us have been trained to instinctively ignore phrases such as "Delphi is the best language," "Java is the best language," or ".NET is the greatest thing since sliced bread." Phrases or words that we have learned to distrust include paradigm, next generation, productive, user experience, user friendly, bottom line, critical mass, market momentum, exit strategy, investment climate, and so on.

Post Factual Marketing

If we all deplore the low standards found in email, blogs and some newsgroups, it can be more interesting to explore carefully thought out prose written be obviously intelligent people. Let’s go to a particular pages on the web to see how it works. First we’ll look at marketing from Sun, and then from Microsoft.

I’ll quote first from a paragraph grabbed at random from the lead article on Sun’s web site. The topic in question is OpenSolaris, Sun’s open source version of their Solaris operating system. Here is the quote:

"’It’s easy to focus on the source, the tools, and all the other tangibles involved in open source. But at the end of the day, the true measure of success for the OpenSolaris project is the community,’ says Sun senior marketing manager, OpenSolaris, Claire Giordano. ‘It’s not about the source code–it’s about the conversation.’"

I think it is wonderful that Sun is releasing an open source version of their operating system. However, I don’t think they do it to foster a conversation. Instead, they are interested in promoting their product. If people are talking about their OS, then they are likely to use it. But we are so used to people "spinning" their point of view, that it almost seems impolite, or unfair, to point this out. I also distrust pat phrases such as "at the end of the day," and "the true measure of success." I also find it instructive to consider what the referent of the article "it" might be in the phase "It’s not about the source code — it’s about the conversation." In my opinion, the likely referent is "Our marketing plan," but most readers would never understand that from a simple reading of Claire’s words. Though in this case, the quote may be real, I know from my years in the corporate world that it is not at all uncommon for a marketing person to write out a quote, and then attribute it to someone higher up in their company. In today’s world, it is hard to know if these are really quotes from Claire, or just the output from a brainstorming session.

I will stop picking on Sun now, and turn my attention instead to Microsoft. Here is paragraph chosen completely at random from the first page I came to on Microsoft’s web site. When selecting the quote, I picked one of the two first full paragraphs I could find describing the company’s push for Window’s Vista:

"The Aero philosophy is not only to deliver a user experience that feels great but also to fundamentally change the way usability is measured. In the past, Windows focused heavily on usability as defined by such metrics as discoverability, time to task, and task completion. Aero continues to deliver on these metrics, but it will also enable Windows Vista and WinFX applications to generate a positive connection with users on first sight, on first use, and over the long term."

Forget the made up words such as "discoverability," and mangled verb forms such as "deliver on." And don’t bother wondering whether or not a product called Aero can have a philosophy. These issues are merely the tip of a dangerous hidden world that lies hidden beneath a seemingly benign cloud layer.

The claim of this paragraph is that the heart of the "Aero philosophy" is to "deliver a user experience that feels great." What is really going on here, however, is that the marketing people who promote this product want us to "feel great" about Windows Vista. No one really expects us to feel great when we click a button in the Windows UI. But such distinctions are lost in a swirling fog spun by the marketers.

The latter half of this paragraph is even more meaningless. It claims that the "Aero philosophy" is also to "fundamentally change the way usability is measured." This will be done by "creating a positive connection with users." That’s a funny way to measure usability. How in the world can you measure something as abstract and meaningless as "creating a positive connection?" Again, the desire to "create a positive connection with users" is not a goal of the product, but a goal of the marketers. Furthermore, this another example of what Orwell called "a verbal false limb." And lord knows no one in the Aero development team even once considered changing the way "usability is measured." The whole riff on measuring usability is simply a verbal mist designed to disorient the reader. Changing the way usability is measured is simply not one of the goals of the product. Or at least I hope it was not their goal. Such an intent would imply an all too conscious and sinister Orwellian manipulation of the public.

The paragraph we have found on Microsoft’s web site is the written equivalent of a fog bank. It surrounds the reader in a swirling mist through which nothing can be clearly seen. A single screen shot would tell us much more.

The ultimate irony, however, is that the underlying message that the paragraph wants to convey is in fact entirely benign. Translated into simple English of the type Orwell advocates, the paragraph would read as follows; "We want to create an attractive interface that is easy to use." Reading that simple sentence is a bit like watching the fog burn off the California coast. The fog might have looked sinister, but it was covering a very pretty landscape.

Both Microsoft and Sun have a strong simple message, which is easy to convey. Why don’t they simple say it? Are they trying to deceive customers, their boss, themselves? Who knows? We can’t see through the fog to find out what they are actually thinking. And yet, though I personally prefer OpenSolaris to Microsoft Vista, when I compare these two prose samples, I would rather be exposed to Microsoft’s benign floundering than to Sun’s false altruism. But it is a fool’s choice.

Summary

Words are seductive. I’ve written a lot of them, and there is no sin described in this article that I have not committed. I’m writing from experience to remind myself and others of the dangers that lurk as close at hand as the nearest mail client.

Most of us know what it means to be good, and to be honest. Many of the same people who insult others on Slashdot probably go home at night and kiss their spouses and hug their children. The prose on Microsoft’s or Sun’s web sites may well be written by people who attend a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. We are so lost in the fog of our words that we can no longer see the clash of values between what we tell our spouse, minister or children, and how we act on the Internet.

When we start writing words many of us get lost in a fog of abstractions. We use words not to communicate, but to bludgeon one another. We all do it, whether we are politicians making a national address, marketers trying to sell a product, or just ordinary citizens commenting on a blog. It is a disease indigenous to the modern world. We wander each day through a verbal mist designed to deceive. We are so used to it that we often distrust or disparage the simple truth when we chance to encounter it. It seems at times starkly impolite, and at other times naive.

We forget the damage created when we enter the post factual world of aggressive hostility and meaningless abstractions. The idea of stating a simple truth is foreign to us, and attempts to be helpful or polite now seem quaint and out moded.

The solution is fairly simple. The first step is to read Orwell’s essay and to make a resolution to always use the simplest, most direct verbs and nouns that we can find. The second step is to place others first in our hearts. Is what we are writing going to hurt someone else unnecessarily? Are we being so selfish as to attempt to deceive others for personal gain? Are we trying to communicate, or are we just trying to win some imaginary competition? Do we really believe that the insults that we utter on a newsgroup are necessary, or are we just trying to cover up own insecurities in a blustering fog of abstractions? If we have a talent for prose, are we using it to deceive or to inform?

A New Way to Sell Delphi

In my last article, I wrote about selling development services. And of course, this got me thinking. (What doesn’t get me thinking is probably what you are asking about right now.) Anyway, it got me thinking about how to sell shrink-wrapped software. (A disclaimer first: I’ve never been involved with the production and sale of a shrink-wrapped product, but I have bought a lot of shrink-wrapped software. Plus, I stayed in a Holiday Inn last night). Selling software is an interesting endeavor. I think that the way it is sold needs to change, and that this change is being driven, like so many other things, buy the way the Internet affects everything.

(Another aside – what do I mean by “shrink-wrapped software?” I mean any software that you market and sell to individual customers. It need not actually be delivered in a box; it can be sold purely over the Internet, for instance.)

Selling shrink-wrapped software is hard. It’s tough figuring out how to price your product. Deciding what license to use, how to collect the money, how to deliver the product, what to deliver in the product, how to market it and whom to market it to are all difficult, challenging decisions. Can’t be easy to do.

So I was going to make up some fictional company to show what thoughts I’ve come up with, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to talk about an idea I have for Borland. Now, I’m no expert on this, but I do see an obscene amount of customer feedback on the newsgroups, and I am a customer myself, so I’m not totally pulling this out of .. uhm, thin air. Yeah, thin air.

In general, Borland sells their products as if they were cars. Every year or so they product a new version, have a big announcement, and go on a marketing blitz to make people aware of the new version. Frankly, I think this an outdated and outmoded way to sell software. I also think it isn’t really what customers of software development tools want.

As a general rule, I think that if you are in the technology business, and you have been doing something the same way that you did before the Internet came to the fore, then you need to rethink the way you are doing it. How Borland sells software is a good example. Borland is selling software the same way they did before the Internet changed things. They are selling Delphi the same way they did before ubiquitous newsgroups made communication between users easy and copious, before eCommerce became the norm, before blogs made putting out information to customers a piece of cake, and before the ClueTrain Manifesto discussed and laid plain the need to change. Or, put another way, I think it is time that Borland rethinks how they sell software.

In addition, I think that Borland faces a unique business dilemma. Selling software development tools isn’t like selling other software. To a large degree, Borland’s customers rely on Borland products for their livelihoods. Whether it’s a consultant, a small development shop, or a large corporation, committing to a development tool is an important decision involving a lot of time and money. It’s fairly painless to change word processors. Changing development tools is a huge commitment. Therefore, Borland needs to sell their software in a way that recognizes this unique relationship that they have with their customers.

Now, let me be clear — I’m not trying to tell Borland what to do; I am merely making some suggestions, offering some food for thought, tossing out some cud for them to chew. I don’t have nearly enough information about Borland’s business to even begin to think that I could run Borland better than it is being run. I’ve frequently said that people shouldn’t try to claim that they know more or better than Borland unless they really do, and I’m not claiming that at all. That said, I do think I have some interesting ideas that they ought to consider. I am a customer, and I know what I want, and I see a lot of comments by customers and I think I know what they want.

Okay, here’s what I think: Selling software like cars is old-fashioned and needs to be changed. (Shoot, the way we sell cars in this country is nuts, but that’s another article…) Anyway, I think that the idea that versions of Delphi ought to be discreet, distinct events separated by time measured in years ought to end. Borland should consider the idea of selling Delphi only as a subscription – sell nothing but Software Assurance. Customers could purchase variable lengths of service, getting discounts for longer commitments. They could renew at anytime. Prices could be adjusted to ensure revenue streams aren’t altered much by this change. Customers could even pay a larger fee for individual updates.

Then, the really big change: Borland should plan and release quarterly updates to the product. These updates should include bug fixes, incremental improvements to existing features, and new features. Quarterly releases could be a goal, and not firm targets. New versions could be released as builds and features stabilize. New features could be implemented one or two at a time. The frenzy of producing, marketing, and selling a single release would be replaced with the task of selling a product as a concept and a commitment.

This is a win/win scenario. Customers would love this. They’d be getting frequent updates with frequent fixes to problems. They’d be getting a steady stream of new features, reducing the learning curve for any individual release. Bugs would be quickly fixed. The company’s commitment to Delphi would be clear, and customers really like clear commitment to products that they buy.

Borland would love it because their revenue streams would be smoother and steadier. The pressure on the R&D team would be lowered, as they would no longer be trapped in the frenetic cycle of pushing for a big release. Smaller, incremental releases allow for more flexibility and a steadier, more deliberate release schedule. The push to finish any particular release in a specific quarter would go away, because there would be a steady revenue stream. Features and fixes could be allowed to “stew in the pot” for the right amount of time because the pressure for any particular feature to be released at a specific point in time would be illuminated.

This change is needed because the Internet makes things move too fast. Long spans of time between releases of a product are not conducive to customer loyalty and satisfaction. The ease of distributing even large software packages has caused the marketplace to be more demanding of such frequent updates. Problems in software are made readily apparent to large swaths of a customer base because of the instantaneous communications possible on the web. Since news spreads quickly on the Internet, Borland needs to be able to respond just as quickly. Features get announced as vaporware, and Borland needs a vehicle to more quickly respond to such announcements. Everything is moving faster, and Borland needs to be able to move as fast as the folks in the left lane.

The time has come for a change in the way that shrink-wrapped software is sold. Making a commitment to a product and to customers by providing a steady, regular update to a tool is what customers desire. This is especially true for customers of development tools.

Learning from the Past: Standard Oil, Antitrust, and Software

”How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him.” (Adam Smith)

We live in an age of consolidation of corporate power. Huge companies and powerful men wield vast power in our society. This situation is not new. Corporate power has been a constant in American life since the middle of the 19th century.

This column is based in large part on the book Titan, by Ron Chernow. This author is in the news today because of his recent very well received best selling book on Alexander Hamilton. I’m going to look back in American history and see what we can learn about today’s economy by examining John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Created in 1870 when Rockefeller was 30, Standard Oil gained control of 90 percent of the world wide oil business by 1880. The Standard, as it was frequently called, still controlled 86 percent of the American refinery business in 1906, when it was in the last stages of its struggle against many years of antitrust legislation and legal setbacks.

It is not my intent in this article to draw direct parallels between Standard Oil and the software business. Has one company got control of the computer business the way Standard Oil had control of the oil business? Can a parallel be drawn between the way the Standard used railways to transport oil and the way modern companies use new computers to distributed pre-installed software? Just as Standard sold oil at a loss, does one company today force another company out of business by giving away products? Do politicians, sometimes bought and sold politicians, protect big computer companies in the same way that politicians protected Standard Oil?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But if we were going to wrestle with them, we might learn from first attempting to properly understand the past. Issues like those we face today have been faced before, and we can learn from reviewing those experiences.

In this column I will explain that the creator of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., was a great man, a deeply religious man, a monopolist, and a public and vocal enemy of the free enterprise system. Standard oil was a highly innovative company that was embroiled in vicious legal battles from within two years of its inception. It engaged in extensive and highly successful attempts to influence the political system, and it secretly implemented a carefully thought out plan to create a vast, and ultimately highly successful, monopoly. This monopoly was never undone by market forces alone, but instead by legislation. When reading this article, you should understand that Standard Oil was but one of a series of vast trusts that emerged in an era when there were no laws to restrain monopolies.

Rockefeller the Man

In cases like this it is easy to settle for black and white interpretations of history. One is tempted to paint Rockefeller as either an angel or a devil, when in fact he was neither. Or perhaps it would be easier to say that he was both. Rockefeller was always extraordinary. When he was good, he was very good, and when he was bad, he was very bad.

From childhood, Rockefeller was a deeply religious Baptist, and a firm believer in charity, temperance, and abolitionist causes. It was not simply that he didn’t drink, but that he was a constant, and long term, supporter of temperance. He worked hard, for instance, to ban the sale of alcohol in the state of Ohio.

John D. Rockefeller made his fortune in Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived until Standard grew so large that he was forced to work out of New York City. He started in business in his late teens, and from his earliest years he gave a substantial portion of his income to charity. This was not just a whim of his later years, but something he did throughout his life, often at considerable cost to himself.

One of his most remarkable charitable causes was the creation of a respected school for black women in the deep south. To put it mildly, this was not a common charity in the second half of the 19th century.

Rockefeller married Laura Spelman, a woman whose family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from the south before the Civil War. Her views on race relations encouraged him to work for the good of black people, though he was sometimes known to make racist comments about Jews.

Rockefeller was faithful to his wife, and a good and conscientious parent. In later years when he traveled, he almost always took a minister with him. He cared deeply about religion, attended his Baptist church at least once a week, and never wavered in his faith.

The founder of the University of Chicago, Rockefeller pioneered the idea of the charitable man of business. The tale of his often herculean efforts in charitable work would fill an interesting, and quite lengthy book. Primarily through home schooling, he groomed a son who with his father’s proud blessing went on to become one of the most influential philanthropists of his age.

In general, Rockefeller was a disciplined, hard working, even tempered, man. To most of those who knew him, he was unfailingly polite and considerate. Many found him to be a warm and thoughtful, though not always very close, friend.

Standard Oil and Monopolies

Even Rockefeller’s avid pursuit of a monopoly was driven, at least in part, by religion. Trying to fully understand the relationship between American protestant theology and money is no easy task. Certainly, there is now, and has always been, a class of Americans who believe that wealth is a sign of God’s grace, and there can be little doubt but that Rockefeller counted himself among that number.

Ron Chernow tells the tale of a Standard Oil employee, and a friend of Rockefeller’s, named Samuel Dodd, who told the following joke: “Well, as the ministers say when they get a call to higher salary, it seems to be the Lord’s will.” This saying could stand as an epigraph for Rockefeller’s life. He believed he had a God given talent for making money, and that the wealth he earned was proof of his virtue.

In Rockefeller’s eyes, the demonic force of evil that stood between him and his God given right to earn money was the free enterprise system. Today, we take it for granted that all Americans support the free enterprise system. But there is little evidence that the majority of the founding fathers supported it, and it is completely clear that Rockefeller, like many of the famous financial figures of his day, was opposed to it.

When Rockefeller was making his fortune in the 1860’s and 70’s, the oil business was plagued by boom and bust cycles that caused prices to fluctuate between lows of ten cents a barrel and highs of over $10 a barrel in a single year. Rockefeller rightly pointed out that it was impossible to conduct business in such a financial climate. His remedy, however, was to create a complete monopoly of the entire international oil business. Once in complete control, he could decree a reign of virtue that ensured that prices were set in such a way as to create a steady and reasonable market for his product. Ah! Order at last!

Rockefeller did not, of course, call what he was creating a monopoly. Instead, he tended to say things like, “The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return.” (page 148 of Titan.) By this he meant to say that the free enterprise system was finished, and that he was going to bring order to the wild and disorderly rule of the free market. Rockefeller believed in the brotherhood of man, not in the rights of the individual. The question, of course, was who God had appointed to be the father of this brotherhood.

Rockefeller perhaps best expressed his philosophy in this statement “It was the battle of the new idea of cooperation against competition, and perhaps in no department of business was there a greater necessity for this cooperation than in the oil business.” (P. 149) Today, we know that by cooperation, Rockefeller meant trusts, or monopolies. But back then, it was all new. Rockefeller, a brilliant and highly original innovator, was at first able to define the terms of the discussion.

Standard Oil and the Railroads

By 1880, ten years after its founding, Standard Oil exercised a nearly complete monopoly of the oil refining business. It would, however, be a serious mistake to assume that Rockefeller’s sphere of influence was limited solely to refining oil.

The word Octopus has frequently been associated with Standard Oil, and for good reason. Rockefeller’s company was a vast trust with arms that reached out into the shipping business, the banking business, the barrel making business, the pipeline business, and most notoriously, the railroad business. Interestingly, he did not ever have a deep interest in the oil drilling business. He regarded that enterprise as too risky, since it depended on a boom and bust cycle dictated by the chance discoverey of new wells.

One of the many companies that came under Rockefeller’s sway was an institution called the South Improvement Company (SIC), which was to be formed in 1872, two years after the formation of Standard Oil. Members of the SIC were to receive a 50 percent rebate from the railroads. More importantly, they would also receive rebates for every barrel shipped by non-members. For instance, Standard Oil was to receive a 40 cent rebate “for every barrel shipped to Cleveland by competitors.” Think about that for a second. What incentive did the railroads have to use competitors if they had to pay Rockefeller 40 cents for each barrel shipped by the competitors? (Titan, Page 136)

An analogy might bring home the significance of this deal. Suppose that in todays market, one company were to get a monopoly on the Internet, and all carriers of Internet traffic. Suppose that company were in the information business, and used the Internet to conduct business at a rate 50 percent less than the rate that everyone else had to pay. Suppose further that the company was paid every time anyone else used the Internet. Finally, suppose the company were to monitor the traffic at certain company owned hubs in order to discover what other competitors were doing, and to block their traffic at certain strategic times. That would give you a sense of the power that Rockefeller attempted to wield under the SIC, and that he in fact did wield when he later completed his monopoly.

The South Improvement Company (SIC) was never fully formed, and after an approximately six month run, it was disbanded under enormous legal pressure of a type that would follow Rockefeller around for the rest of his life. Those six months, however, were one of the major turning points in the history of Standard Oil. Using the threat of the South Improvement Company to bludgeon his competition in Cleveland, Rockefeller crushed or bought all but a handful of his competitors during the winter and spring of 1872. In particular, Chernow states, between “February 17 and March 28, 1872 – between the first rumors of the SIC and the time it was scuttled – Rockefeller swallowed up twenty-two of his twenty-six Cleveland competitors. During one forty-eight hour period alone in early March, he bought six refineries.” (p143.) Cleveland was only 150 miles from the oil fields in Western Pennsylvania, so this purchase gave him a huge share of the entire oil refinery business.

The year 1872 was the turning point for Rockefeller, for Standard Oil, and certainly a critical date for American business. Nevertheless, questions about the SIC plagued Rockefeller all his life. He never wanted to admit what went on in 1872. Unfortunately, questions about the SIC followed him around for decades, and many claimed that the SIC was never truly defeated, but existed in shadow form into the next century. Certainly it was true that Standard Oil received huge rebates from the railways for many years after 1872.

But Rockefeller remained unrepentant. “It was right. I knew it as a matter of conscience. It was right before me and my God. If I had to do it tomorrow I would do it again the same way – do it a hundred times.”

Rockefeller and his Conscience

Rockefeller was in many areas of his life a good and decent man. But he was not always honest. Like all the rest of us, he found it impossible to live up to so high an ideal.

Sometimes he told forgivable untruths. For instance, once he was asked to testify about the Southern Improvement Company. Before replying, he consulted with his lawyer. Then he faced his questioners and said that he had never been part of it. Indeed, he never had been part of the Southern Improvement Company. But he had certainly had been a major investor in the South Improvement Company! Such wily cat and mouse games would become a Rockefeller trademark as the law began to close in on him.

At other times, Rockefeller was less clever. For instance, Chernow, (p. 147) relates how Rockefeller stated that few persons who were stockholders in Standard Oil were subscribers to SIC stock, when in fact fifty percent of SIC was held by Standard Oil employees. Rockefeller’s statement might have been construed to be literally true, but it was obviously highly deceptive. He went on to say that SIC chairman Watson owned no Standard Oil stock when he had in fact gotten 500 shares through a sub rosa deal. This later statement was clearly not just a clever evasion, but a frank lie, and one that Rockefeller might have hoped would never be uncovered.

Rockefeller also invested heavily in newspapers, and afterwards said that he had perhaps “given too little heed to influences of this kind. I decided best to do it.” (p 212). When an employee of Standard Oil explained the importance of making a member of the legislature “our man,” Rockefeller told him to do “all that is necessary.” (p. 213) He also engaged in money laundering schemes, paying members of the New York Senate in Government bonds, so as to hide the fact that money was changing hands. (p. 210) These practices continued for many years, and his willingness to buy books and articles favorable to Standard Oil increased when he came under attack by Teddy Roosevelt.

There is a very modern sound to many of the court cases involving Standard Oil. For instance, Chernow points out that “Whether by chance or design, Rockefeller’s 1872 business papers have vanished.” (Page 146) 1872 was, of course, the key year in Standard Oil history, as it was the time of the South Improvement Company. The distant sound of documents being shredded is something that all readers of modern newspapers hear with alarming frequency.

In 1898, there were reports of 16 boxes of books burned by Standard Oil employees when they feared they might be subpoenaed. A teenage boy who worked for Standard Oil told of his job to weekly burn the records of rebates funneled back to Standard from the railroads.

Rockefeller and other Standard Oil employees also had remarkably short memories when on the stand. This fuzzy thinking was in sharp contrast with Rockefeller’s well documented displays of keen memory for even the tiniest details when engaged in business. At one point, when asked on the stand if he had ever heard of Standard Oil, Rockefeller furrowed his brow as if unable to remember anything clearly. At last managed to say in distant voice, “I believe, your honor, they operate an oil refinery in New Jersey.” (p 541.)

The Turning of the Tide: Antitrust

In America, Standard Oil was a virtually unopposed monopoly well into the 1890’s. By 1879, when Rockefeller turned 40, Standard Oil controlled 90 percent of the world wide oil business. As late as 1906, it still controlled 86 percent of the US Oil refinery business. Overall, Standard Oil exercised a nearly complete monopoly for some 25 or 30 years, and continued to dominate the refinery business for nearly 40 years. That may not sound like a long time to us now, but to the other businessmen who were competing against Standard Oil, 25 years was the length of their entire career. In other words, at least one entire generation of businessmen lived in the shadow of this, and many other, monopolies.

Nevertheless, well before Teddy Roosevelt and Taft broke up Standard Oil in 1911, the power of the cooperative had been mitigated by a combination of legitimate competition, and antitrust legislation. Laws such as an 1887 ban on railroad rebates, the 1890 passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the 1903 Elkins Act, all seriously crippled the Standard’s monopoly.

Though President McKinley generally left the trusts alone, in the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt put new force behind the Sherman Antitrust act. Roosevelt oversaw the passage of the Elkins Act, and promoted the Department of Commerce and Labor.

Standard Oil was under frequent attack from the press, the judiciary and the government from the 1872 SIC debacle on. However, the first big success against it was the passage, in 1887, of the Interstate Commerce Act. This legislation made railroad rebates illegal, thus appearing to take away one of Standard Oils major tools. Previous to this moment, and for many years afterwards, the Standard combine received rebates from the railroads. This made their transportation rates significantly lower than the rates faced by their competition. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, they often were paid by the railroads whenever the competition, such as it was, shipped anything. The Interstate Commerce Act passed despite the opposition of US Senators under Standard’s control such as Johnson Newton Camden and Henry B. Payne. (Of the two, Camden was a former Standard Oil board member, while Payne was the father of an important Standard Oil executive who, as a Democrat, had claim to some nominal independence. (p. 292)

Arguments as to whether or not Standard actually complied with the Interstate Commerce Act continue to this day. However, there are internal documents showing that Rockefeller was aware of how his company attempted to circumvent this law, and Standard was fined, temporarily, for violating it in 1907. Certainly the passage of this law represents an important landmark in US law. The law clearly benefits the free market and hence most businesses, but restricts a few big businesses. Laws of this kind are fiercely debated today, when libertarians argue that any such law is bad, even if it has the effect of benefiting the majority of American citizens by restraining a small minority.

One of the fundamental concepts at stake in the Standard railroad cases was the idea of a common carrier. Were the railroads a common carrier that treated all businesses equally, or should they be controlled by a single company for its own benefit? A contemporary version of that argument might include ideas of whether or not the US highway system or the Internet are common carriers, or whether it would be acceptable to allow a corporation to gain control over them and to use that control for its own benefit. Lessons learned in the struggles with Standard Oil are one of the major reasons why we take for granted the idea that highways are a common resources available to all, rather than the domain of some proprietary interest.

By 1888, Rockefeller was in flight from a government determined to break up his trust. The all powerful magnate, who still had many friends in government, and was fawned over by many in the press, nonetheless had to begin a game of evasion, slipping out of doors at the last moment to avoid subpoenas, and running back and forth between Cleveland and New York to avoid being served. On the stand, however, he proved to be a master of evasion, and frequently fought his interlocutors to a standstill. His skill was the result of a keen intelligence, a lifelong habit of secrecy, a remarkably calm and even disposition, and an unshakable faith in his own virtue.

Nevertheless, Standard was the center of a huge national movement to break up the trusts, which penetrated, at the height of the gilded age, in to many different businesses besides oil, including sugar, tobacco, copper and the railroads. When the US House of Representatives issued a report on the subject in 1888, 1000 of the 1500 pages in the report were dedicated to Standard Oil.

In a major setback for Rockefeller, antitrust legislation forced the Standard out of Texas in 1900. This was a severe blow to the company, since it was in 1901 that oil was discovered in Texas. As a result, Standard had to sit by and watch Pure Oil and Texaco emerge from the rich Texas oil fields. These companies also gained a foothold in California and other western states.

Ironically, it was the belated emergence of competition that helped sink Standard Oil. As long as the Standard was the only company in the business, it was hard to prove that it was suppressing its rivals through monopolistic practices. In 1905 Pure Oil, though less than 1/20th the size of Standard Oil, was emerging as Standard’s largest rival. It was, however, with Roosevelt’s help, powerful enough to go to court and effectively lay bare Standard Oil’s monopolistic practices.

The tide finally turned against Standard Oil in 1905, after Roosevelt was reelected. By then, both the US government and the individual states had begun a series of thousands of successful prosecutions, that ended up sending Rockefeller into hiding. As he had in the 1880s, Rockefeller exerted enormous energy to avoid having to testify. Ironically, he was once betrayed by his love for rare cheeses. An alert delivery man reported special cheeses being sent to the Rockefeller’s Pocantico Hills estate. “Rockefeller, in my opinion, is somewhere on that estate,” the hack driver said. (p. 521) Process servers still were unable to get past the gates of the vast, heavily guarded estate, but Rockefeller was forced to retreat to New Jersey, where he trained spot lights on his yard to avoid men with summonses.

The process of dismantling the Standard had deep roots going back beyond the formation of the Sherman Antitrust act in 1890, past the 1887 law that banned railroad rebates, and all the way to the 1872 SIC case. Still it was not until 1900’s that the job was finished. Chernow writes, “On November 18, 1906, the federal government filed suit in Missouri to dissolve Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act.” The defendants mentioned in the suit were Standard Oil and sixty-five companies that it had under its control. (p 538.) According to Chernow, they were “charged with monopolizing the oil industry and conspiring to restrain trade through a familiar litany of tactics: railroad rebates, the abuse of their pipeline monopoly, predatory pricing, industrial espionage, and the secret ownership of ostensible competitors.” (p 538) A key moment in the case against Standard was the discovery of proof that the combine was still receiving railroad rebates in 1907, though they had been outlawed years before.

Chernow reports that in 1906, Standard still refined “87 percent of all kerosene, [and] handled 87 percent of exported kerosene, marketed 89 percent of domestic kerosene, and was more than twenty times the size of its most serious competitor, Pure Oil.” Gas for cars was becoming very important by this time, but kerosene for lighting houses had been by far the most important product in Standard’s history. It was the commodity upon which the Standard Oil empire had been built.

In 1906, after weathering five years of Roosevelt’s Presidency, Standard still had 86 percent of the refinery market, but by its final breakup in 1911, the beleaguered company had only 70 percent of the market. Because the business was unpredictable and the margins low, Standard wisely never went into the oil well business in a big way, and instead focused on refining. Nevertheless, Chernow states that it had pumped “32 percent of American crude oil in 1899, [but] its share had slumped to 14 percent by 1911.” (p. 555)

The Effect of Antitrust Law

Of course, the 1911 antitrust campaign against Standard Oil was hardly the end of John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller prospered after 1911 in part because of the rise of the automobile, but in greater part because of the break up of the Standard combine.

In 1910, sales of gasoline surpassed sales of kerosene. Rockefeller was ideally situated to take advantage of this situation. Instead of owning twenty-five percent of Standard Oil, he now owned twenty-five percent of the thirty-four companies which were created by the breakup of the trust. Among those thirty-four companies were the corporations which today are known as Exxon, Mobil, Amoco and Chevron. In two short years, Rockefeller’s worth soared from 300 million dollars before the breakup of the trust, to just under one billion dollars in 1913. This would be roughly the equivalent of 13 billion dollars in today’s money.

Summary

From studying Rockefeller’s history it is clear that we cannot have a free market in this country unless we have laws to restrain those who would undermine that free market. Rockefeller himself did not believe in the free market, but ironically, the presence of a truly free market in 1850 made it possible for him to establish a huge monopoly. There simply were no laws to prevent him from doing what he wished.

After the formation of the Standard combine, the country decided that the free market could not exist unless restraints were placed on trade. Laws restraining free trade come down to us in the form of antitrust legislation. Most of us, with the possible exception of some in the libertarian movement, accept those laws. Indeed, they are built into the structure of this country to such a degree that we take them for granted. What we need to ask ourselves is whether we take them so completely for granted that we no longer bother to enforce them with the proper spirit when modern monopolists emerge. As we watch one huge corporation gobble up another huge corporation, we have to ask ourselves if this is just a new form of an old problem that plagued this country 100 years ago. And if it is, will there be heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt who emerge to put a stop to it?

Firefox wins Charlie’s Favorite Software of 2004

It’s the end of the year, so it’s time for a favorite computer products list. This is a very personal list, highlighting the software and tools that I most enjoyed using.

The Product Supreme: Firefox

The winner for this year is fairly easy to pick: the free, open source, cross platform Firefox web browser. As a long time Mozilla user, not all the features in FireFox were new to me. But Firefox does have a cleaner, easier to use interface than the Mozilla browser. Though both are based on the same technology, the big differences between Firefox and Mozilla are two fold:

  • Firefox has a new interface with menu choices similar to those in IE and other Windows based products.

  • Firefox is lighter and sleeker, in part because it does not have a built in mail client. Instead, you can use Mozilla Thunderbird, a mail client based on the Mozilla mail client, but which runs standalone. It makes sense to separate these two products, since there is no need to load a mail client just because you want to browse the web.

For me, the five best features in Firefox are:

  • Tabbed browsing. This is the winning feature that makes IE look like a horse and buggy, or perhaps at best a Model T Ford. When searching for information, you generally need to keep more than one view open at a time. For instance, when searching Google, you may enter a search that gets good results, but which you think might be improved. With Firefox, you can just add another tab to your browser, run a new search, then switch back to the previous tab to compare the results. This is much better than cluttering up the desktop with multiple copies of IE.

  • Popup blocking. Popups are the bane of the web. Windows can multiply all over your desktop in a matter of seconds, and few of them are the least bit interesting. Mozilla has a nice clean way of letting you turn popups on and off, and it provides a simple way to let popups work on one site but not on another.

  • The DOM Inspector and JavaScript debugger. These tools for developers are, like Firefox itself, the best in the world of their type.

  • The password and cookie management tools. We all need to manage multiple passwords for multiple sites on the web. Firefox has found exactly the right formula, making it easy for you to add, delete, and use existing passwords. Similar tools make managing cookies a reasonable task.

  • Better security. Both Internet Explorer and Outlook (Express) are the sitting ducks of the world of crackers. The chances that someone will hack your Firefox browser are much lower than the odds that they will hack the Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Other great features include a wonderful new search bar, a customizable interface that can include as few or as many tools as you want, an extensible API that allows you to add very cool new features developed by third parties, the fact that it is free, the fact that it ships with source, the amazing live bookmark tool that allows you to integrate RSS right into your favorites menu, and much more.

Firefox is a winner. The amazing built in spam filtering tool for Thunderbird is also a must for people who are having trouble with Spam. I switched from Outlook to Mozilla mail many years ago, and I have never looked back. Not even once, and not even for so much as five minutes.

Plone 2.0

Another great tool that came out this year is Plone 2.0. Plone is a free, open source, highly scalable and quite excellent content management system (CMS). If you are trying to create a web presence for your company and need a simple way to get a good looking, extensible, powerful site up quickly, then Plone is among the best possible choices. It comes with all the features you need built in, such as automatic sign in and support for adding new users, workflow tools for tracking documents through a development cycle, and groupware tools for collaboration inside a big company. I’ve only run the installation on Linux, but it was extremely simple, and took only a few minutes.

A very mature product, which runs on Linux, Windows, the Mac and BSD, Plone has been translated into 40 languages, and supports working with multilingual content. There are several books out on Plone, and there are extensive courses available, including an upcoming three day training in San Jose on Jan 19.

Plone is based entirely on open standards. Built in Python, Plone is based on the rock solid Zope technology. Because of its power and flexibility, Plone is used by many major web sites, including NASA, Lufthansa, and a host of other sites.

Built with an extensible architecture, there are lots of add in features available, including support for PayPal, portlets, calendars, message boards, banking integration, file management tools, and much more.

Here at CodeFez, there is a great deal of interest in .NET development, so we run the excellent open source DotNetNuke content management system. DotNetNuke is a great tool, with many of the fine features found in Plone. Though not as mature as Plone, and not cross platform, I find that DotNetNuke is still an excellent choice if you want to work with a Windows based CMS.

Mono 1.0

Mono is a version of the .NET framework that runs on Linux, Unix and Windows. There are implementations of Mono for the x86, PowerPC, and SPARC platforms. I’ve been able to create ADO.NET applications in Microsoft Visual Studio, and port them unchanged to Linux using Mono. In my test cases, I did not even need to recompile these programs, but could use the Microsoft binaries directly on a Linux x86 system. There is also cross platform support for ASP.NET, nascent support for Windows.Forms, and a fairly mature level of support for building cross platform GUI applications using a tool called GTKSharp.

Based on ECMA standard 335, the Mono CLI plays much the same role in .NET development that the Java Virtual Machine plays in Java development. It provides a standard means of running the same application on multiple operating systems.

The C# language is fully supported in Mono. In fact, the Mono team has developed a million line plus C# compiler written entirely in C#, that can be compiled and used on both Linux and Windows. The Mono C# compiler is powerful, fast, and very stable. New development is going on constantly, and newer experimental builds already provide support for generics and other advanced features.

I like Mono because it is cross platform, is based on standards, ships with source and because it has an active community supported by excellent developers. Mono is a fine tool that you can install on Windows or the Mac in just a few minutes with a simple installer. Linux installation is a snap on Fedora Core 2, and on SUSE distributions. Installing Mono on other Linux distros involves a bit more work.

Fedora

Fedora Core 3 is another great new product that I have enjoyed using. Though still lagging behind in multimedia and laptop ease of use, Fedora is easily a match for Windows in terms of content development, application development, networking and reliability.

A free, open source tool with an easy to use installer, Fedora has two beautiful, highly configurable desktop interfaces in KDE and GNOME. With the addition of Firefox for browsing, Thunderbird, Mozilla, or Ximian Evolution for email, OpenOffice for document editing, and with Konqueror for handling file management and other OS related tasks, Fedora and Linux now provide a rock stable, fast, elegant, and mature platform for computing. With a little skill and patience, you can even learn to burn CDs and watch movies on Fedora.

The new 2.6 Linux kernel used in Fedora 3 is an amazing tool that provides excellent support for multitasking via hyperthreading, support for small systems via embedded Linux, and support for big iron via NUMA and SMP. Linux systems now support a theoretical limit of 4 billion users, and up to 1 billion processes. You can now run up to 4095 major devices at one time, and 4095 minor devices. All of this adds up to greatly improved scalability on a system that was already highly scalable. You can read about these and many other features in Joseph Pranevich’s excellent article on the new kernel.

Overall Fedora Core 3 provides a great platform for computing. If you are tired of the glacial pace of improvements found on your current operating system, try coming over to Linux with the free, open source Fedora Core 3 operating system. There are major new builds and new developments in the Linux world coming out every few months, and sometimes every few weeks. In the Linux world, you don’t have to wait years to see fixes or new features in your operating system, and if you are really desperate to fix a bug, the source is available so you can roll your own improvements.

Other Fine Tools

Other products that came out this year that I enjoy include the always excellent Visual SlickEdit 9.0 and its powerful competitor, JEdit. Both of these fine, powerful, extensible, editors run beautifully on Windows and Linux. Visual SlickEdit has many powerful features such as refactoring, syntax highlighting, code insight, visual development support for Java, support for debugging your code, and a built in scripting language. JEdit has many of these same features, and a superb set of tools for developing addins.

Delphi 2005 also shows major improvements over Delphi 8.0. I love Delphi, so it is great to see it moving in the right direction. I recently moved a big project to Delphi 2005, and found that it helped me uncover some hard to find bugs. Dreamweaver 2004 is another excellent product, and one which I use heavily. When it comes to creating HTML documents, Dreamweaver is the gold standard, though OpenOffice is only a hair’s breadth behind. In fact, OpenOffice 1.4 is another great product that came out this year.

In the hardware world, I have enjoyed my multimedia ready ShuttleX computer, which is small, fast, and quiet. Of course, my iPod has also been a big hit. I use my iPod when I am out exercising, when I want to listen to music on my big stereo in the living room, and when I am in the car via a cassette deck plug in tool.

Summary

Personally I’ve had a nice year, but the news on the international and economic fronts was not always good. With trouble in the Middle East and with the dollar, I’ve found the plethora of great technical products that have come out this year helped me remain upbeat and optimistic. If you have a computer, a good connection to the Internet, and a little technical knowledge, then you will find that there is a steady stream of excellent new products available that are just waiting to be explored and enjoyed.

Apple Celebrates the Holidays by Suing the Little Guy

The dubious news story of the day is that Apple is going to court to determine which people leaked information that appeared on Apple centered web sites such as powerpage, think secret , and apple insider. After yesterday’s Microsoft and EU news, it is interesting to note that this case hinges in part around multimedia features. I wonder if people are thinking that multimedia and computers might be a potent combination? Gosh darn, I should have thought of that myself!

Whatever one might say about Microsoft, its hard to imagine Bill and Steve ever suing anyone over an issue like this. In fact, one often suspects that Microsoft insiders are likely to hear the latest rumors at a legitimate news conference, even before they are told to begin testing or working on a new product. Bill may get my dander up from time to time, but he isn’t that kind of crazy. In fact, he’s probably smart enough to know that in today’s world, there is no such thing as a secret.

Not content with piling on little web sites like powerpage, Apple has gone on to sue two members of their "Apple Developer Connection" program for foolishly (insanely?) posting beta versions of Apple OS X on the web. I have to ask, which is crazier: Posting the code in the first place, or daring to mar a happy and very profitable holiday season by suing people?

Exactly what possible difference can it make to Apple if folks know the details of their OS before it is released? Do they think Microsoft:

  • Has time to care what Apple is doing?
  • Feels threatened enough to act on something like this while engaged in the insane process of trying to release a much delayed new version of their own OS?
  • Doesn’t already have a copy of the darn thing?

Or has Apple so completely lost it that they think the kind of multimedia and image crazed maniac who uses a Mac is ever likely to switch to Linux, for Pete’s sake? I find it hard to believe that hard core Linux developers can’t get a look at a beta of OS X if they really want to. But if they did look, they know that Linux is not exactly a hot competitor in the multimedia market. Servers maybe, but not multimedia! Why waste time emulating OS X? They have more important things to do.

Even more peculiar is the desire of these depraved developers to illegally post a beta copy of Apple OS X on the web. I worked at Borland long enough to understand that there is a temptation to try to buck up one’s flagging self image by pretending that access to a secret somehow makes one special. But when I was tempted to stoop so low, I always wanted to impress people who I actually knew, rather than total strangers who downloaded a file anonymously. Unfortunately for me, everyone I knew who cared about such things was already on the darn beta, and had already signed a blanket NDA. I mean, I wasn’t going to get too far trying to impress girls at a party with my inside information about Delphi’s ability to make ActiveX controls!

The talk on the street is that Apple is going to sell four million copies of the iPod this Christmas. If I were sitting on top of such an expensive and red hot product , I would tell my lawyers to get a grip! I have no idea what the margin is on an iPod, but I wouldn’t think anyone would be too far off if they started doing things like multiplying 100 times 4 million, just to see what that figure might look like! And then you can start thinking of the profit Apple makes when people download songs from the Internet. Let’s see, one dollar a song, with a distribution cost too small to measure. Hmm. Somehow, if it were up to me, instead of getting mad, I think I would just count my blessings. If I were really feeling mean, I would just tell those developers that they were no longer members of the "Apple Developer Connection," and then let it go at that.

What do you think? Has Apple gone crazy? Are all lawyers crazy by definition? Has the whole world gone crazy? Is it time for a holiday vacation, or what?

Microsoft Loses EU Court Appeal

Microsoft lost a significant appeals case in Europe today. As result, they will have to pay a 665.4 million dollar fine, and share information about server protocols that had previously not been disclosed. The New York Times added: "Under the ruling, Microsoft must sell to computer makers a version of Windows without its Media Player software for playing music, movies and video clips sent over the Internet on personal computers."

I have not conducted a serious examination of this case, but it does seem to me to be interesting. It also touches on various subjects such as the rights of companies vs the rights of individuals, antitrust legislation, the free market, etc. As an avid supporter of the free market, I would be interested in hearing other CodeFezzers opinions on this legislation.

  • What do you think is the import of this case? Will it affect Microsoft, or is it a non-serious issue for them? Does it enhance or restrict the rights of individuals?
  • Does Microsoft deserve the verdict, or is it unfair? They have paid billions of dollars to other competitors in antitrust cases settled out of court this year. Are they getting off cheap with a $665 million dollar fine? Is the fine itself unfair?
  • I have heard, and it appears to be true, that the Windows Media Player cannot be uninstalled. Should users have the right to uninstall software like that, or should Microsoft have the right to omit the uninstall feature?
  • Is this case really about something else, or is the verdict focusing on the correct issues?
  • Are there common misconceptions about this case?

We want to hear from you. What do you think about this case?

Review of Firefox 1.0

A new browser, called Firefox, has just reached version 1.0. You can download this superb free browser from http://www.mozilla.org. This article provides an overview of Firefox, and of the older Mozilla browser, which comes from the same development site, and which has many of the same features. Throughout most of the article, I will treat the two browsers as if they had identical feature sets. Later in the article I will specify exactly why Firefox was created by the same organization that built Mozilla. I will explain that Firefox has a sleeker, cleaner look and feel than Mozilla, and show that it has a more intuitive set of options that will be particularly appealing to people who use the Internet Explorer (IE).

If you haven’t been using either Mozilla or FireFox, then you have been depriving yourself of one of the luxuries of the modern Internet. Firefox is clean, easy to use, and very powerful. Both these browsers run smoothly on Windows, Linux and the Mac. Best of all, they help protect you from viruses and other intrusive kinds of software such as worms or trojans.

Safety

Though no software product is perfect, Firefox and Mozilla have generally not been a hole through which spyware, worms or viruses enter a system. One of the big reasons that Firefox is safer than the Internet Explorer is simply that it is not targeted as often by crackers as Microsoft’s browser. Of course, one of the reason’s IE was targeted was because of its popularity, and it was popular in part because it was, for a short a time, arguably the best browser on the market. In the past, not choosing a Microsoft browser has meant giving up something in terms of functionality. With Firefox, however, you usually gain functionality when you switch to it from the Microsoft Internet Explorer. In the next section, Usability, I will outline exactly why the Firefox and Mozilla feature set is superior to what you find in the Internet Explorer.

Another reason that Firefox and Mozilla are safer has to do with their mail clients. Mozilla has a built in mail client, and there is a second, standalone mail client under development called Thunderbird that will work as a mail client for Firefox users. Neither of these products is nearly as prone to spreading viruses as alternative products from Microsoft such as Outlook. The safety comes in part from the aforementioned lack of attacks from crackers, but also from restrictions on the kind of scripts that will run automatically in Mozilla based mail clients.

Usability

Perhaps the most important usability feature in Firefox is tabbed browsing. This feature allows you to open tabbed pages, with one site assigned to each tab. Using tabs, you can keep three or four sites open in one browser window with virtually no sign of clutter or crowding. Most of your window shows the output from a single site. You simply select a second tab to fill in the body of the window with the contents from a second site. The system is powerful, and addicting.

Tabs are useful for everyone, but if you have a slow connection, you can use them to read one site while another is loading in the background. Another use for tabs is to keep one site open on a particular part of one page while doing research on a second site. You can then tab back and forth between the two pages to compare their content.

Tabs are a feature that newbies will probably tend to underutilize. But if you have been using Mozilla for a year or two, then you are probably already addicted to the benefits this feature brings. I know that when I have to use a browser that does not support this feature, it is a bit like trying to ride a bicycle that is missing one of its peddles. I can still manage to get around the web, but the experience is not nearly as pleasant or intuitive as when using Firefox or Mozilla.

You can create a new tab by pressing Ctrl-T, and you can close a tab by pressing Ctrl-W. I use Ctrl-Tab to switch between the open tabs in my browser. This is such a simple, easy to use system that it will quickly, and permanently, change your browser habits once you learn how to utilize it. There are also special options, like having links open automatically in another tab, rather than having them replace your current window. There are various ways to customize this feature to meet your needs. For instance, you can right click and select to open a link in a new window, or in a new tab.

Another key feature is built in popup control, which again works to keep your desktop neat and manageable. You can select on a site by site basis whether or not to allow popups, and you can get a visual clue when a popup has been suppressed.

The personnel toolbar folder allows you to place frequently visited sites in a toolbar at the top of your window. After using this feature for a few weeks, you will find it difficult or impossible to go back to using browsers that work the old fashioned way. I use this toolbar to link to my most commonly visited sites, such as Google, Slashdot, the New York Times, Beliefnet, Amazon, NewsForge, etc.

Firefox and Mozilla store their "favorites," which they call "bookmarks," in an HTML file. This means you can edit your list of bookmarks in a text editor, and you can easily pass it on to friends, or simply publish it on your web site.

Themes are a nice feature that allow you to quickly and easily customize the colors, icons, and general look and feel of your browser. One wants to have some ability to personalize the look and feel of an application. A buttoned down corporate type might want one look and feel, an aging hippy another look, punk rockers a third, goths a fourth, soccer moms a fifth, and so on. With themes, you can make the buttons, tabs, and window dressing on your browser take on a look and feel appropriate to your way of life.

Both Mozilla and Firefox offer tools for handling cookies and passwords. In particular, they both offer an excellent system for maintaining a list of passwords that you use at various sites. This list is easy to customize, so that you can update items or delete them as needed. If you sometimes sign into the same site with multiple logins, the browser will automatically pop up a list of user names from which you can select the one you want when you go to a particular site. If you have only one login for a site, it is filled in for you automatically, so that you need only press the OK button to log in. This is in contrast to the clumsy Microsoft IE system, which makes you type in at least the first letter of a user name each time you sign in to a new site. I thought the Microsoft system was great when I first saw it, but Firefox and Mozilla have gone them one better on this feature.

I’m a mature developer, with the venerable five oh birthday not too far ahead of me. As a result, I sometimes find web sites designed by young whippersnappers with lasered eyes virtually unreadable due to their miniscule 8 or 6 point fonts. Firefox and Mozilla allow you to press Ctrl Plus and Ctrl Minus to expand or shrink the current font across the breadth of an entire page. This ability to switch font sizes so quickly is great when you are browsing from one site to another. You can expand the font when you hit sites with little ants crawling across the page where there should be type, and you can shrink the font when you reach sites where the print is so big that it is forcing you to scroll too often.

The search feature in Firefox is excellent. After pressing Ctrl-F, my cursor is placed in an edit control at the bottom of the browser. As I type, I get an incremental search through the page. For instance, if I type in the letter G, then I am taken to the first word on the page that begins with G. If I type in Ge, then I move to the first word that begins with Ge, etc. Other features, such as find next, highlight, match case, are also exceptionally easy to access from the control bar at the bottom of the browser. The point here is that one does not need to deal with a search dialog that obscures part of the page you are trying to view. This system is available at this time only in Firefox, and not in Mozilla. It alone is nice enough to tempt me to give up my old favorite browser and move over permanently to Firefox.

What all of these features do is allow you to customize your browsing experience to meet your needs. Firefox and Mozilla offer their users many options; they give you the chance to customize your experience so you can work in the most disciplined, efficient and pleasant way possible.

Technical Benefits

Mozilla and FireFox are built on top of open standards. Other browsers encourage developers to use proprietary API’s that fragment the Internet community and lock unsuspecting users into single platform solutions, thus depriving users of freedom and limiting everyone’s options. Proprietary API’s can sometimes supply developers with useful tools, but they bind everybody, developers and users alike, to solutions designed to benefit not the public at large, but the needs of a single corporation. Both Firefox and Mozilla support standards developed by internationally recognized committees such as the World Wide Web Consortium. These committees get input from multiple corporations, and from ordinary users, and create standards that meet the needs of the public and of the entire marketplace. The extremely high conformance to these standards found in Firefox and Mozilla gives you a chance to experience the highest quality browsing experience. A side benefit is that they show you immediately when you have landed on a web site that is supporting proprietary standards. As a rule, it is against your interest to do business with any company that is trying to lock you into a proprietary standard. They are interested in their own gain, not in serving your needs. Why would you want to do business with, or give your time to, someone who is trying to deprive you of your freedom, or who is simply indifferent to your needs or preferences?

Developers will also appreciate the advanced JavaScript and HTML debugging tools that come with Mozilla and Firefox. These tools are greatly superior to anything else I have seen in any browser or toolset when it comes to helping you debug complex web pages. The available tools include a javascript debugger, a DOM inspector, and a number of add-ins that can provide hundreds of custom features for developers. This is not the place to explore these tools, but many of these tools are rich enough to merit exploration in lengthy technical articles. You need not install these advanced features if they do not interest you. If you do install them, they are discreetly kept out of the way, and will not hinder you during normal browsing sessions.

I should add that the Gecko rendering engine is a platform in itself. If you are a developer looking to create advanced, cross platform web applications, there are a number of rich API’s available from the Mozilla web site that can help you build standard conformant solutions to complex development problems. Visit the Mozilla developer page to get started on this quest.

Downsides

The downsides to Firefox and Mozilla are few and far between, but they do exist. Almost certainly the most common problem is that some financial sites use proprietary API’s when doing financial transactions. When I encounter those sites, and have to use them for one reason or another, then I just switch over to IE. But this is not a common problem. For instance, it is unlikely that you would encounter this kind of thing with a widely known brand name such as Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, an airline ticket reseller, a bank, or any big company with a nationally known brand name. If you do encounter a site that does not support Firefox, then generally a letter to the management explaining why you are doing business with their competitor will quickly bring them into conformance with open standards.

The majority of big sites on the web use Java or PHP to perform these kinds of financial transactions, and Java and PHP are well known standards that work fine with Firefox and Mozilla. There are also many Microsoft API’s that conform to standards. In fact, there is nothing inherent in ASP.NET or most other Microsoft standards that make it impossible to use them with Firefox or Mozilla. Developers who create sites that lock you into IE are often not intending to do that, and they are frequently willing to clean up their code if you report the problem.

In general, most sites want to get every transaction they possibly can, so they make sure their tools conform to standards. They don’t want, for instance, to lose all users who choose Linux, Unix or the Mac, nor do they want to lose or aggravate users who prefer standard conformant browsers. I personally prefer to do financial transactions in Firefox or Mozilla, since they are hacked less often, and would therefore seem to me to be a safer way to perform an online transaction. Certainly I have been using Mozilla for years to do hundreds of financial transactions without any untoward incidents that I have noticed.

Another potential, though infrequently encountered, problem with Firefox is that some sites use proprietary API’s for the generation of web pages. As a result, some of these sites will not render correctly in Mozilla or Firefox. But this happens less and less frequently as time passes. I’m not sure I can think of any site, other than Microsoft’s, where I have encountered any serious rendering problems (other than very tiny fonts) in the last six months. And I should add that Microsoft’s site has improved several fold in terms of conformance to standards over the last two years. Clearly they are making a concerted effort to make sure their site renders correctly in browsers that conform to standards. Still, if I dig deeply enough into the site, I can sometimes have troubles using it. In such cases, I just switch over to Windows and pop up IE. If I were a bit more organized, I could even run CrossOver office and have a copy of IE running on my Linux box. When I am using Windows, it is simple to switch over to IE. In fact, there is an add-in for Firefox that will allow you to automatically bring up a page in IE if you encounter problems viewing it.

I should add, that I almost always have found web masters not only willing, but anxious to bring their sites into conformance if I point out that they don’t render correctly in a standards based browser. After all, it is much easier to fix a web page than it is to rewrite a financial system. As a result, getting developers to clean up a non-conformant web page is usually not a big problem.

A few years ago, when Mozilla was first hitting its stride, I had conversations about rendering problems with several web masters, and they usually wrote back immediately, asked what the problem was, and quickly fixed it. By this time, however, most serious web developers test against both IE and Mozilla/Firefox, and ensure that their site renders correctly in both browsers. That is usually simply a matter of making sure that their code conforms to open standards. All web site developers who care about their users needs and preferences will want to support open standards. As mentioned earlier, it is generally a very bad sign when you encounter a web site that is trying to force you to use a proprietary API.

Such things can be very subjective, but I have heard some people state that it seems to them that Firefox takes longer to load than the Internet Explorer. This is possible, since IE is so integrated into the Windows OS that most of it is probably in memory even before you launch the browser. Mozilla has a feature that will keep it in memory, thus cutting down on launch time. But this has never been a issue for me. Both Mozilla and Firefox launch in under five seconds, and usually in only one or two seconds, on my system, which is fast enough for me. In terms of surfing sites after the browser is loaded, my subjective experience is that both Mozilla and Firefox are at least as fast, and probably considerably faster, than IE. But I make no claim to having benchmarked any of these performance issues. The only firm statement I can make in this regard is that I have never found performance to be anything remotely like a problem when using either Firefox or Mozilla.

Firefox vs Mozilla

In this review I have treated Firefox and Mozilla as if they were one product. As a long time Mozilla user, they do in fact seem very similar to me. The question then, is why was Firefox developed by the same open source group that creates Mozilla? What is the difference between the two browsers?

Both Firefox and Mozilla are built around the same engine, called Gecko. This engine ensures superb, speedy rendering of web sites in either browser.

In general, Firefox was designed from the start to be a cleaner, less cluttered version of Mozilla. Sometimes these benefits come at a price. For instance, Firefox does not contain a built in mail client, and Mozilla does. Since the Mozilla mail client is excellent, I tend to like having it as part of my browser. But there is no question that having the mail client built into the browser makes it bigger and bulkier.

The Mozilla browser is the basis for modern versions of the Netscape browser, such as Netscape 6 and above. As a result, the Netscape team had a good deal to say about what features needed to be included in Mozilla. The Firefox team got their inspiration in part from a desire to create a browser built around the best of the Mozilla technology, without any of the clutter that was accumulated along the way due to input from Netscape or other users.

The Firefox engineers created their own development charter. One of their goals, as defined in that charter, was not "to have more or less features than any other client (Mozilla included) but to have the right set of features to let people get their jobs done."

In particular, the Firefox team tried to make Firefox easy to use for users who were migrating from the Internet Explorer. There are a number of features in Mozilla that might seem odd, old fashioned, or just plain dumb to people who are used to the Internet Explorer. This is particular true of the Mozilla configuration options, which are reached by selecting Edit | Preferences. That menu selection will seem odd to many IE users, and the dialog that opens will seem foreign to IE users. In Firefox, one chooses Tools | Options, much as one would expect to do in a Microsoft product. The dialog that opens up not only conforms to standards used in Microsoft applications, but to my eye does them one better in terms of attractiveness and ease of use. I’m very used to the options found in Mozilla, but I found it easy to configure Firefox once I got over the shock of finding how much the paradigm had changed.

Despite the fact that Firefox follows many Windows user interface standards, it is still available on Linux and the Mac. My experience is that Firefox is not yet as completely bug free on Linux as is Mozilla. In my experience, Mozilla on Linux is rock solid. In fact, it is one of the best tools that I use on any platform, and it runs without flaw on Linux. I’m sure that Firefox will soon have the same reputation on Linux as it does on Windows, where it appears to me to run absolutely flawlessly. Firefox is a very clean, mean machine on Windows. It is elegant, easy to use, and very responsive.

Install

Installing either Firefox or Mozilla is extremely simple. You can download Firefox for free from the Firefox home page. Once you have the install file on your system, you need only double click on the downloaded executable to begin the effortless installation process. A few moments later, you will have installed or upgraded your copy of Firefox, and you will be ready to begin browsing.

Any favorites, bookmarks or related settings that you had in IE or in Mozilla can be automatically and smoothly imported into Firefox during the installation. When you pop open the browser, you will have all the features you had in IE, plus new features such as popup blocking, tabbed windows and the advanced search and developer tools.

Since customization is an important part of Firefox, you have some choice about which features are installed. For instance, you need not install the developer tools if you don’t want them. But there is nothing at all complicated about the install process, and anyone who is able to download a file should be able to run the install with little trouble. Adding in themes or optional developer features is automated once you have Firefox installed.

You can also order a CD and guidebook from Mozilla at a nominal price.

Summary

In this article you have learned a little bit about the new Firefox 1.0 release, and also about the Mozilla browser. Both Firefox and Mozilla are built around the same advanced, standards conformant, rendering engine, called Gecko. As a result, they both offer the same high quality experience when browsing. Mozilla has more features than Firefox, but Firefox will be more familiar to Windows users, and it has a cleaner, more stripped down, more elegant design than Mozilla.

I was originally drawn to Mozilla simply because it ran on Linux. However, the addition of tabs and the personal toolbar soon led me to switch when I was on Windows.

But it wasn’t just the superior browsing experience, the excellent mail client, and the increased safety, that made me a complete convert to Mozilla and/or Firefox on both Linux and Windows. Others may not feel this way, but I don’t really like getting all my solutions from a single company. To me, it is a bit unnerving to load up Microsoft Windows, load up Microsoft Office, and then load up the Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook. I’m not foolish enough to insist that these aren’t good products. Though far from perfect, they are certainly reliable tools. But for me, getting locked into a Microsoft only proprietary solution to all my computing needs just feels claustrophobic. I feel like they might as well just go ahead and stamp the company logo across my forehead if I’m going to live that kind of life. Computing is such a broad, interesting experience, why be locked into one company’s vision of what it is all about?

I compute 8 to 14 hours a day, often 6, and sometimes 7, days a week. The idea of spending all my time using one company’s products just seems in some small way to be a relinquishment of my personal sense of freedom, of independence. Some people who are more attracted to authority might get a sense of comfort from knowing that they have one big daddy who gives them all that they need. I’m just not built that way. I like using Microsoft Windows because it is a good operating system, but I prefer to get my other computing needs met by other companies. If I have no choice, then I will use Microsoft tools, but when superior technology such as Firefox comes along, then it is easy for me to switch away from IE.

Of course, that argument might hold no weight with you. In that case, Firefox can only offer its superior technology and its clean, smart look and feel. Give it a try. My bet is that you will think it looks nicer, handles better, and has a superior feature set to any competing browser. Even the aging Mozilla browser is a considerable technical step forward from IE.