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A radioactive sister in law

By Rudy Nadler-Nir

I got an uneasy feeling when I saw Microsoft’s new payoff line for its Microsoft .NET campaign. It said “One Degree of Separation.”

The line refers, presumably, to what is known as “Six Degrees of Separation”. I assume that the Redmondites are talking about the fact that their product is directly linked, bonded and otherwise grafted into the virtual skin of the user. Shudder.

“Six Degrees of Separation”, a concept denoting an actual social network, was conceived by the psychologist Stanley Milgram, who set out to trace the way social networks behave.

For his “The Small World Problem” study, Milgram chose reasonably remote locations in the American states of Nebraska and Kansas and asked residents there to send a parcel to a stock broker in an obscure Massachusetts town named Sharon. Each parcel contained a log of delivery and a set of rules for the participants.

If they did not know the addressee directly, participants were asked to choose a person whom they thought would be able to see the parcel safely and quickly to its target.

Milgram found that the surprisingly small average number of “hops” (intermediaries) between the sources in Nebraska and Kansas and the target in Sharon, Massachusetts was 5.5 – thus, “Six Degrees of
Separation”. (For more on Milgram and his work, visit http://www.stanleymilgram.com/)

“Six degrees of separation” stipulates that each person on earth could be linked to any other person through six “hops” or intermediaries. The smaller the “Degree of Separation”, the closer you are to your subject.

When Microsoft claims One Degree of Separation, it means that only one intermediary will be required to facilitate communication. My sister-in-law is one degree of separation away from me – with her husband (my brother) serving as the single intermediary.

The world’s largest software company pays billions of advertising bucks to tell me it is situated as close to me as my sister-in-law?!

Microsoft is not in the schmoozing business and, judging by recent news headlines, Microsoft is not in the mood for schmoozing, either.

It has just announced that it will close down sales and support for Microsoft Windows NT and, while they were at it, also unplug Windows 98 and stop supporting Sun Java. One degree of separation from these guys is as comfortable as having a radioactive sister-in-law.

Part of a new Internet development known as “Web Services”, .Net is intended to offer centralised data management and processing, together with hosts of services. It is possible that users will be asked to pay for such services.

Microsoft .Net’s public platform, named .NetMyServices, is a personal data repository, locked behind security servers and offered to users wrapped in services such as auctions and transactions.

Sounds familiar? It’s a reincarnation of the “locked portal” – entry by registration, usage in an enclosed environment. All of this smells heavily of digital deja vu.

Had it been any other player, we’d have laughed “One Degree of Separation” off the park. Remember news24? Remember M-Web locking out non-subscribers? Not this time.

Please don’t tell me I’m Microsoft bashing. Would you like Microsoft (or anyone, for that matter – be it the South African government, the Sheriff of Mpumalanga, Brad Pitt or the Dalai Lama) to be the gatekeeper to your personal data?

Considering security holes like the ones we saw on Microsoft’s MSN and Hotmail, how safe can .NetMyServices be?

Conspiracies aside (I don’t believe Microsoft will ever do conspiracies – they aren’t platform-dependent), I’m naturally jittery. It’s a normal reaction to future aspirations of the world’s largest, most successful IT company.

I fear the day when Windows 95, 98 and NT are gone, and Windows XP’s version for the year 2005 turns out to be only operable through Password (another Microsoft service) and available to us at a cost.

I can see myself scrambling to find a R5 coin to pay to unlock my PowerPoint presentation, reboot my PC or print a spreadsheet – one degree of separation and 150 degrees of irritation.

Rudy Nadler-Nir is an independent e-strategist and Brain-for-Rent. Check Rudy’s personal Website, at: http://eclectic.co.za or e-mail him at: mailto:rudyn@eclectic.co.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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