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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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Bill and the BubbleBoy
Microsoft claims it puts customers first. Then can we get some service around here, Mr. Gates?

November 20, 1999
Web posted at 7:15 p.m. Hong Kong time, 6:15 a.m. EDT

The Dazed Lion in Winter
Post-election, the Habibie administration's inadequacies come out
- Thursday, Nov. 18, 1999

Into the Year of the Dragon
What's Ahead for China
by David Hsieh
- Wednesday, Nov. 17, 1999

Ascendant Zhu?
With WTO agreement, Zhu Rongji on the comeback trail
- Monday, Nov. 15, 1999

'Just Be Yourself, Dear'
Hong Kong has to find its own techno-identity
- Friday, Nov. 12, 1999

How Rais Missed Being No. 1
Indonesia's first contender never made the final cut
- Thursday, Nov. 11, 1999

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When Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson fingered Microsoft as a monopoly on Nov. 5, the software giant's head honcho, Bill Gates, was quick to respond with a statement of his own.

After the throat clearing and howdy-alls, Gates delivered 10 short punchy paragraphs outlining Microsoft's reaction to Jackson's Findings of Fact. In each and every one he stressed how the consumer, the customer, or simply the people were the central concern of his company. Microsoft was holding true to a "basic American value," Bill told us: "Serving customers."

All of which got me rather excited. Customer service was not a value I saw slopping around in excess the last time I visited Microsoft's website. What I remembered was an un-navigable mess that always put me in despair before I was able to find what I had gone there for in the first place.

So when I was forced to swing by Microsoft's homepage again this week (not something I do readily or willingly) I was interested to see how Gates's newfound passion for customer service had changed things.

It hadn't. I was looking for a fix for the BubbleBoy virus. BubbleBoy has not done any damage (yet), but it has created a lot of hype. By attacking a loophole in Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program it has rewritten laws of virus prevention and punched a big hole in PC users security systems that others can drive through. It's only a matter of time before someone uses the BubbleBoy's means to devious ends. I decided to get a software "patch" for the hole before it was too late.

I had heard that Microsoft had posted a patch on its website. Great. But where? Getting a fix for BubbleBoy and his ilk should rate as the top concern for most Microsoft customers right now. Is there a big sign saying "BubbleBoy Fix HERE!" on Microsoft's welcome page? Of course not, although I can read Microsoft's views on how the U.S. Department of Justice is crippling its "Freedom to Innovate" if I want.

The quest for the BubbleBoy fix begins. Maybe I can get the patch under "Support." Or maybe it's under "Downloads." Perhaps I get the update at the right "Product Family Site." But what family does Microsoft put Outlook in, Windows or Office? Each click leads to another question and more complication -- the virtual equivalent of being pushed from desk to desk at the complaints department. I feel like I'm in a labyrinth, that there are a dozen different routes I could take to the same goal, none of them direct, none of them intuitive.

Eventually I leave Microsoft's site and return to the online news article where I originally heard about the patch. Thankfully the story offers a link back to the right part of Microsoft's site -- or at least the most relevant part the author could find. I get taken to a sheaf of geekspeak titled Microsoft Security Bulletin (MS99-032) where I am told that there is a problem with my ActiveX controls scriptlet.typelib and Eyedog. Say what? I notice that the information is housed under a section called Security Adviser. Not that I see this rubric mentioned anywhere else on Microsoft's homepage.

I'm offered five different locations in the labyrinth where I can download the patch. One of them is simply a link to the Downloads section where I've already been. Then I notice that one is the Windows Update page. Of course, I recognize that name from the Start menu in Windows. I prepare to recant my criticism. Microsoft has obviously outthought me, putting the link I need right on my desktop to save me the need to search.

Only joking. A trip to Windows Update gives me a list of literally scores of patches, fixes and tweaks that I can add to my copy of Windows 98. I can't see any mention of BubbleBoy and worse I'm panicked at seeing the number of holes there are in my operating system. Which are important? Which ones should I definitely plug? There's nothing to help me decide, just more reams of programmer smalltalk. I eventually work out which download I need, but only because it has a reference to MS99-032, which I took the precaution of printing out. If I had come here through the Start menu, instead of being wrung through the system, I'd have been none the wiser.

Another thing piques me. The fix for this bug has been available since before BubbleBoy floated into view -- since August in fact. Why didn't I know? Because for Microsoft, good customer service evidently doesn't stretch as far as letting registered users of its products know about such faults bugs and glitches.

Microsoft is still stuck in the arrogant geek mode of the early days of computing. It puts the fix for any problem on its website, it's our fault if we don't know about it, can't find it or fail to understand it. If we end up with fried computers or stolen personal data because of our incompetence, well that's just tough. Meanwhile the company goes about its mission of widening PC use beyond the technologically gifted until even your Grandma has one in her kitchen.

It took me almost 40 minutes of frustration to find, download and install the patch I needed. In the end I think I got the right one and that I'm protected against viruses like BubbleBoy. But can I say that my mind is at ease? No. And the customer is always right.

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