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Total Recall

I woke up today with recall on my mind. No, not the drama playing out in California these days -- the recall I have in mind has much more significance. Hear me out.

I woke up today with recall on my mind. No, not the drama playing out in California these days — the recall I have in mind has much more significance. Hear me out.

When a consumer product poses a serious risk to the public, the manufacturer of that product typically issues a recall, effectively removing the faulty car part, toy, or appliance from use. Whether the goals of the manufacturer are altruistic or merely defensive, the end-result is the same: the consumer is spared injury and expense. Managed well, manufacturers can even generate positive buzz from a recall, endearing themselves with consumers for “doing the right thing.”

On the other hand, companies that debate the necessity for the recall, or worse, hide defects, typically become pariahs, banished from the marketplace forever. But even then, some good is usually distilled from the debacle: publicity, legislation, and improved standards (attempt to) protect the consumer from a repeat performance.

Which brings me to my radical idea: perhaps it’s time for Microsoft to recall Windows.

It’s been more than a month or so since the last round of vulnerability attacks, yet I am still reeling from the effects of the worm and virus — and I don’t even use Windows! Multiply that hassle by a thousand or a hundred thousand or more like the millions, and the cost of Microsoft’s defects is probably in the billions of dollars. I cannot think of a product defect with such a costly price tag, at least measured in dollars and cents. Theoretically, no lives are at risk.

I am even more frustrated by all of this for two reasons.

First, when recently asked about the security flaws in Windows, Microsoft founder and Chairman Bill Gates said, “We’re doing the best we can.” (Well, Bill, your best is just not good enough.)

Second, the other day, all of this struck very close to home — well, at home to be exact — when I realized that my daughter needed a new computer. She had an aging laptop, and needed something more substantial and modern for email, surfing, instant messaging, building her web site, burning discs, watching DVDs in her bed, and oh, yeah, the occasional homework assignment. It took me about thirty seconds to figure out what to buy: during the first five seconds or so, I chose a vendor; the next twenty four seconds were spent scheming, dreaming of how to fight the man in favor of the penguin; and the last second was spent in utter capitulation, realizing that she really did need Windows. After all, that’s what her friends have, and that’s what she needs to be productive.

But even with that realization, I still can’t shake the feeling that I bought a new Ford Pinto. Mind you, I’d be calling for a recall if Linux or Mac OS X suffered from the same flaws as Windows. The manufacturers of something as critical as a consumer operating system should be held liable for systemic defects.

Operating systems are complex. Bugs do happen. But that doesn’t mean bugs and flaws are acceptable. Indeed, in a free, competitive marketplace, consumers accept or reject the quality of a product with their dollars. Here, with the purchase of XP, I had to accept what was offered, warts and all.

If California voters fail to recall our sitting Governor, perhaps Mr. Schwarzenegger would like to run Microsoft for a while. If Ah-nold can fend off a T-X, just think what he can do with an XP.

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Martin Streicher, Editor

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