L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

21 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

The Price of Electrons

It is not clear to me whether the people who run the eHarlequin site for romance related ebooks are incompetant or just contemptuous of their customers. In the absence of other evidence I tend to lean towards the former because of that famour retelling of Occams razor "never ascribe to malice what can be accounted for by stupidity".

Either way I find it interesting that they manage to have the same set of electrons available at not just two but three different prices as the image below shows (if the link doesn't work go to the main page and search for "poison study" to see for yourself).
How much for this ebook?

21 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink


Latin America's answer to Africa's Comrade Bob Mugabe and Asia's Dear Leader Kim, Venezuala's T'Hugo has decided to copy another piece of the successful Zimbabwean economic program. The BBC reports that Chavez threatens to seize farms and goes on to explain the background:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has threatened to nationalise farms, in an effort to tackle food shortages.

Government controls keep food prices low in shops to help even the poorest Venezuelans feed themselves.

But some farmers prefer to sell their produce in neighbouring countries where prices are higher, leading to shortages of bread, milk, eggs and meat.

In his weekly television show, Mr Chavez said farmers doing this should have their farms "expropriated".

and then to show that he isn't just picking on farmers

On Saturday, Mr Chavez threatened to nationalise banks which did not give enough low-interest loans to farmers.

Banks are not allowed to charge farmers interest higher than 15% - even though inflation last year ran at 22.5%.

"The bank that fails to comply must be sanctioned, and I am not talking about a little fine," he said. "The bank that does not comply must be seized."

Amazingly the BBC manages to note that this might be a bad idea:

Critics say complying with government policy could drive some businesses into bankruptcy.

What the BBC doesn't say is that we can be 100% sure that this will not work. This is the sort of basic economics that we've known about since Adam Smitho, Ricardo, Malthus etc. in the 18th/19th century wrote about incentives, corn laws and so on and lest we think these folks were merely some theoretical economists pontificating from their ivory towers it has to be noted that every government that has attempted to buck these ideas has, to one degree or another, screwed up their economy.

Venezuela seems to be doing a truly magnificent job in demonstrating that even with the cushion of oil to export and record oil prices a government can still lower the living standards of its subjects if it tries hard.

21 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Even Guardianistas Think ID Cards Are Bad

Mrs (for how much longer?) Andrew Marr, aka Grauniad hackette Jackie Ashley,* proves that even the most loyal ZANU Labour Brown-noser have their limits. As TimW points out the Hon Jackie thinks that ID cards will be a really bad idea. Mrs Marr explains that when you have a government as incapable of data security as thr UK one (although it has to be stated that the UK government isn't noticeably worse than the competitions here), then having a database with all our personal details on it is bound to be a Bad Thing™ because we know that at some point some or all of the records will end up on a laptop that is stolen or a CD that gets lost in the post. Or as she writes:

Here's an easy question. What do the following have in common - people on housing benefit, people getting child benefit, people wanting to be RAF pilots or Royal Marines, people in hospital and people learning to drive? The answer is that they have all had their personal details lost through government incompetence. And here's another question. With the national database for ID cards looming, just how much do you trust the government to keep your identity details safe?

The article is good (and yes like Tim I am gobsmacked that I'm actually writing such a thing) but of more interest to me in some respects are the comments where it seems pretty clear that the Hon Jackie is far from the only Guardianista to feel uncomfortable at the idea of giving all our details to the govt. Amusingly I note that one commenter (Bizder - 9:02am) asks why there is sucha hooha because there is no evidence of actual harm yes. Bizder clearly doesn't read the Wapping Liar or the Sun where a certain J Clarkson issued a similar challenge and discovered that someone made him give £500 to charity.

The case of Mr Clarkson illustrates the modus operandi I would follow if I were a fraudster in possession of lots of bank details. Basically what you do is set up a dummy charity/company with a bank account. Then you use these stolen details to initiate a lot of direct debit mandates to banks who then transfer money to your account. You then, via the magic of electronic banking and the like transfer the money to some suitably shady off-shore haven. One question is whether you go for the small but regular fleecing or the big one-off. In the former you set up a direct debit of £1.37 per month for thousands of people and expect that no one will notice the charge. If the company name is chosen correctly even if people do notice it they may decide it is a bank charge or something and not complain.  Alternatively you set up a few hundred larger transfers of £500 or so in the expectation that this is only going to work once.

*Is it just me or is it just a bit odd that a socialist newspaper like the Grauniad has not one but two upper class toffs as lady columnists? That is to say The Hon Jackie and Polly Pot. And for that matter that they are both blonde non-bombshells
Picture of Polly Toynbee Jackie Ashley

22 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Handling Critcism

Those few of my readers who are into books, and particularly into the romance genre, will no doubt be aware of the plagiarism scandal of 2008 as discovered by the highly addictive Smart Bitches/Trashy Books bloggers. I've commented on a few of the posts there and wasted far too much time reading the comments and getting sidetracked here and there.  However after all this goodness they then get have to deal with people complaining that they've let the side down by publicising Cassie Edwards' plagiarism. The result is a great post (and even greater comment thread) where there is a lot of very smart comment on how society today (and particularly female romance fans as a subset thereof) handle criticism. If you have time read the whole thing. If you don't then I'm just going to reprint below (and extend/modify slightly) a comment I made there because I think it is important.

My comment was in response to this from commenter Robinjn:

However, I also think our society is extremely intolerant of any criticism.  [SNIP]

I also think these days our society is so overly concerned that everyone feels included and everyone wins. To the point where when we hold 4H dog shows, all the kids get blue ribbons regardless of whether or not they ever worked with their dogs. It teaches kids that they get something for nothing. It also teaches the kids that do put in the work that it doesn’t matter.

I think the two are possibly related in a different way. Because we (the younger folks that is) don't get real criticism as we grow up - all those parenting books and teacher guidelines about not ruining a child's self-esteem etc - we don't know how to handle it when we encounter it. And we tend to think that even mild criticism is some sort of evil plot to defame us and so we lash out back and so we get flame wars etc etc.

On the internet this is exacerbated by the fact that we can't see the grins, winks and other gestures that people use to show sarcasm or regret while offering criticism etc. etc. In addition there is the problem (noted by another commenter) that fans frequently rise to the defence of the writers whose works they enjoy because the work means a lot to them. I, for example, had a patch in my life as an inky schoolby when Anne McCaffery's Pern books, particularly the Dragonsong/singer/drums trio and the White Dragon, meant a lot to me. Oh and about that time I wrote my first letter to an author (Ms McCaffery) and she actually responded, on a postcard with comments that showed that she had actually read my letter. Hence I get all defensive and upset about people, even SF fans, who denigrate her work because while it may indeed be utter dross to an unbiased outsider to me it was an emotional anchor and inspiration. I don't actually go all nuclear about it and call them total fucking morons (I save that for the people who pick on Heinlein's Friday) but I can understand the urge.

Indeed whenit comes to romance, I think that romance, like my beloved SF, feels put upon because the newspapers and intelligentsia look down upon it. We know that Romance (or SF or Westerns or Mysteries) are sometimes (often) read for relaxation and to unwind from stress. We think that is good. But the intelligent elites who get worked up with politics and who seem to be the ones who write in general interest magazines and newspapers don't seem to think that reading books relaxation is an acceptable thing. It seems that if it isn't angsty/edgy or involves a "black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged lesbian lorry driver" then it isn't worth reading by anyone with an IQ above room temperature.

Well of course a lot of us tend to react negatively to that impression and also, because we're not used to ciritcism (see above), interpret all other criticism in similar light. Hence screaming fights. There may be a "woman" thing there too but I'm seeing considerable crossover from the more male worlds of SF so I'm not sure that is the real issue. Although it is intersting that Rap music, which is generally hated by a majority of people but produced by an ethnic minority that has been historically discrimminated against tends ot get critical acclain while romance, a genre read by a sex that has been historically discrimminated against gets none there may be something in it. Given that romance readers read more and romance writers sell loads more than the average critically acclaimed work I think that it would make some sort of sense, from a business persepctive, to have more attention paid to romance by the rest of the media and literary world. But it has long been apparent to me that the media are a bunch of snobs so the fact that they don't lower themselves to this level, despite the potential commercial gain, is not a great surprise.

And of course, having said that many of us read our genres for relaxation, there is something else. Some of this genre work which is so derided by the elites actually turns out by golly to make us think, teach us lessons and so on. Hence we get even more peeved when it is derided as non-intellectual filler by a bunch of people who've never read any in the first place. To go back to the infamous CE. I think one reason why it hurt when it was learned that her "meticulous research" was accompanied my meticulous use of the keys CTRL-C and CTRL_V was because we liked the idea that by golly this may not be intellectually stimulating but at least we learned something about ferrets, the Lakota or whatever.

24 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Is it that year again already?

It seems that this year is the year we have the local elections (for the mayors of communes etc.) again. You can tell because all the roads that the commune(s) are responsible for are being fixed. Its probably true that the roads don't need much more than maintenance every five years but it might be nice to be less blatent about it....

25 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging - the Triumphant Return

One of the things I love about this time of year is the way the paperwhite daffs burst into bloom around the base of a couple of our olive trees.
20080125 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
Here you see what it looked like at about 16:15 today, an afternoon when the sun has tried, but mostly failed, to shine.

As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

25 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Sommat Fihsy at the Toryprahg

God knows I make embarassing typos and so I probably ought not to highlight it when national newspapers do the same, but this one has been in play for about 15 hours now. You'd have thought someone might have noticed.
Or is it a cunning hint about the general fishiness of the SNP and its dear leader?

25 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Caveat Depositor

This week (and last) has seen all sorts of fun and games in the financial sector with stock markets around the world competing to see how much retirement money they can make disappear and a certain bank apparently unable to notice that they owe other banks stonking amounts of money because some trader has managed to totally misread the market. This latter trick does make one want to laugh at the French and hey we all enjoy a good laugh but, as both Jeff Randall and Chris Dillow note, the failing is pretty darn common and could well be repeated elsewhere. Mr Dillow points out that:

[T]op bosses cannot know everything that goes on in their organisations. The division in which SocGen suffered its fraud - equity futures hedging - is, by the standards of modern banking, a simple business. But it still had enough dark holes for a trader to hide huge losses. When you consider the countless other businesses that banks have - many of which make equity futures look like the Teletubbies - how many other ways are there for individuals to hide losses?

This is one of the threats still hanging over stock markets. It's quite possible that even now banks haven't yet announced the full extent of the losses they have made from holding US mortgage-backed assets. This isn't because rogue traders may be fraudulently hiding losses. It's because honest traders have lots of ways of pricing complicated illiquid assets and can fudge on the optimistic side. Unless a boss is more expert than his traders on multivariate copulas - the mathematical methods used to price such assets - he'll not see through their fudges.

And the boss won't be more expert. Why buy a dog and bark yourself? The division of labour that makes companies efficient - in so far as they are - is also a division of knowledge. It's just impossible for a bank boss to continually know more than every employee does. Ignorance, therefore, isn't a failing of a particular individual but an ineliminable fact about any organisation.

Which leads us to Mr Randall who points out that in order to be a banking executive these days it seems like, in addition to the more normal requirements you need to be able to suspend disbelief in a way that, when it occurs on a more retail level, we call being a gullible sucker.

It is like a restaurateur opening up cans of dog-meat, sprinkling it with herbs, presenting the mix as steak tartare, and charging £25 a portion for something that will poison most of his customers. The difference is, passing off chopped donkey for Aberdeen Angus would be illegal; the repackaging of toxic sub-prime mortgages as high-quality investments was not.

They were a form of hocus-pocus economics. Even so, some of those who played the game enjoyed rewards beyond avarice. Stan O'Neal, the former chief executive of Merrill Lynch, was in charge when his bank was forced to write down $8 billion on sub-prime rubbish. He got a $160 million pay-off and early retirement. If Kerviel were found guilty, he would not be so lucky.

Now I do think that both Messrs Dillow and Randall are perhaps guilty of a teensy little soupçon of overstatement. But it has to be said that alternative ways to store one's hard earned dosh do seem to be ever more attractive. You know, socks filled with fivers, suitcases under the bed, that sort of thing.

25 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Nanny Paypal and Auntie E-online Know Best

[Note this post contains sarcasm and irony ]
In the light of the previous post about the high quality banking system you might think that I would be glad that a couple of financial institutions are doing their best to ensure that members of the public do not take leave of their senses and hand over wodges of electrons worth hundreds of dollars to would-be scammers.

Unfortunately though, these institutions - Paypal and E-Online Data - seem to be so keen to protect the poor credulous masses from the crooks that they also prevent us from buying from genuine bona fide organizations too. I, along with about 100 other people to date, have attempted to buy a Bookeen Cybook via NAEB. Why? because NAEB, having investigated the option of building their own DRM-free ebook reader decided that it really made much more sense to make a bulk buy of the Bookeen.

In other words NAEB are a buyers club, a form of semi-commercial enterprise that has been around ever since a bunch of Mesopotamian villagers realized that they'd get a better deal from the Babylonian merchant if they promised in advance to buy a significant chunk of his goods. The difference is that, unlike the villagers, or the more modern church or sporting group who arrange something similar, the NAEB buyer-club members are geographically distributed across at least 3 continents instead of all sharing the same postal code. This in turn means that gathering together the dosh is nto quite as simple as getting everyone to write a check on the way out of the church door.

Now thanks to Al Gore's wonderful intertubes thingy it is possible for interested folk to use thinks called websites to coordinate their actions and companies such as Paypal (prop. eBay) and E-online (prop. HSBC Bank USA*) have as their raison d'être, the facilitation of monetary transactions across these intertubes. Hence NAEB thought that rather than ask people to write them checks which they then have to lose in the post etc. etc. it would be so much simpler if people could pay using bits of plastic because both Paypal and E-Online promise (for a trifling fee, a mere pittance to be sure, to be sure) to take all the hassle out of the back end bit.

Moreover they advertise that they can set you up as a merchant almost instantly.

And this is true they do let you set up as a merchant pretty much painlessly, making it pretty straightforward to accept the valuable electrons of customers. What they don't do, however, is hand over these electrons to the merchant. Not until they have decided that said merchant is not a scammer.

Which is where we come to the tragic bit (a-hum) because the two enterprises don't to be able to grasp the concept of a buyers group. For NAEB to work they have to take the money now, transfer it to Bookeen, receive the Cybooks from bookeen and then ship them out to the buyers as Bookeen for some reason don't like the idea of shipping the Cybooks without being paid. (bloody French don't they understand that taking things on trust like this is what makes you a financial genius?) Paypal and E-online seem to think that the NAEB founders will take the money and run and so they are not releasing the funds that have been paid by people such as myself. Oddly enough they do seem to have billed my credit card though so somebody (hello HSBC) is earning a bit of interest on the money, interest which I bet they don't intend to pass on the NAEB.

Of course in order to NAEB to prove that it is a genuine business it has to ship Cybooks and in order to do that it needs to pay Bookeen, and in order to do that it needs the money that Paypal and E-online are sitting on. Which, as Pamela Gadsden, the NAEB CEO explains, is a great modern example of catch 22.

Fortunately there is however a vague glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. When the predicament was reported on Baen's Bar, a bunchaton of buyers offered to write checks anyway dammit and indeed to write double or triple the amount. Reading that made me really happy because at the same time (more or less) I sent the follwing email to NAEB:

Just saw your ebookreader post wrt the Paypal etc. idiocy. If it helps I could probably loan you some of the money personally (well sort of personally) at a very competitive rate of interest (probably 0%). Why? because the money is sitting around waiting for the stock-market to decide whether it wants to recover or continue crashing for a while and is earning some minimal rate of interest.

I can't give you a loan for 100 ebooks but I could probably finance (for a short period say 1 month or so) a chunk of them, maybe a half or so. E.g. if you have 50 orders via Paypal I could loan you the 50*$400= $20,000 you would need to have to get Bookeen to ship those orders. Obviously I would not be willing to do that unless I were certain (i.e. Paypal confirmed in writing to me) that Paypal would release the funds once the orders were shipped. [... skip details]

 Of course publicising this probably means I'm going to get even more spam from the heirs of Saddam Hussein and various African kleptocrats but I'm quite serious about the offer. I think it would be a huge shame if all the work done by the NAEB folks went to waste and loaning the money to NAEB (people with whom I have had a significant number of conversations over the last year or two) is less risky than investing it in a hedge-fund full of subprime loans or banking with either Societe General or Northern Rock.

*HSBC Bank USA. Isn't this a bit like the Department of Redundancy Department seeing as HSBC stands for Hongkong and Shanghai BANKing Corporation? And isn't it wonderfully

26 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

eHarlequin - How Not to Sell eBooks cont'd

So a couple of days ago I broke my blogging drypatch by noting how eHarlequin charges 3 wildly different prices for the same set of electrons depending on how you get there. Well I posted that on Baen's bar and then discovered that it is worse.

Firstly if you go for the print edition of the book as opposed to one of the electronic editions you get an excerpt. Not as good an excerpt as the Baen "we give you a quarter of the book so you really get hooked" but what looks like the first chapter more or less. I dunno whether it is just me, but to not make the excerpt available for the electronic version but yet make it available for the dead tree one seems pretty stupid.

And then there is the utter inconsistency of whether there is a link between the dead tree version and the electronic one. The print edition link above notes that the book is available as an Audiobook but not as an eBook. This is not an isolated error. One of the two dead tree editions states that the sequel is available as an eBook the other doesn't and the same applies to a number of other authors that I have looked at.

It seems possible that this is deliberate obscurantism and that the ebook link only shows up when it is cheaper than the paper version (although that isn't 100% correct seeing as one Poison Study ebook is less than the price of the dead tree book) but it looks to me more like a website which is in chaos and not properly thought out. An impression that is added to when you serch for a book (print or ebook) are are told that if you are interested in "this" version you might also be interested in "that" version - where that version is a different price or imprint.

So eHarlequin's ebook site has three problems
  1. Price
    1. high (mostly over $10 per book)
    2. varied with the same book available at different prices
  2. Lack of exceprts
  3. Inconsistent/lack of links from print edition
    1. Bizarre links between imprints and book types
It is clear to me that the problem is that eHarlequin essentially treats each item on its own without thinking clearly about whether they are related. Moreover the hierarchy goes
Whereas is should go
Fuckwits. I see no reason to ever visit the site again even if they do have some Catherine Asaro fantasies that sounded vaguely interesting

28 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

Asus Eee PC Review

My boss thought we should stop lugging around our large heavy laptops and try for something less shoulder injuring so he got me an Asus Eee (and now that I've given it my approval is getting one for himself). As the pictures below show, my eee came from a very nice and helpful Taiwanese via ebay (my bosses one is going to be a more official Swiss German version). We bought mine on ebay because it avoided a good deal of hassles with French keyboards (which are horrible), rumoured delays in shipping and the price, which was probably cheaper (slightly) when shipping etc. was included. As a bonus though I get to have Chinese characters on my keyboard and a paper manual I can't understand.

P1280005 P1280002
So what is the eee like as a device? Surprisingly useful given that it has an 800x480 resolution screen and a keyboard that is about two thirds the size of a regular laptop pad.
I'm runing the Xandros linux distro that it came with at the moment although I'm probably going to stick Xubuntu on it shortly to improve performance (and because playing is fun).

The really good thing about the eee is that there is a large and knowledgeable usr community - in addition to a whole load of blogs and reports that google finds there is also the eeeuser.com website, wiki and forums, all of which are filled with helpful hints and tips. As a result, customization is straight forward and petty annoyances are mostly avoided. However I'm going to describe the bog standard eee first because to be honest you don't really need most of the customization options and you certainly don't need to remove the OS as I'm about to do.

When the eee starts up it puts you in a mode where most of the things you want to do are available but classified as "Internet" "Work" "Play" etc. This is good and covers my work and internet needs pretty well (I haven't looked at the games and learning sections). You have firefox for web browsing, thunderbird for email, skype as well as open office and adobe reader for all those tedious document tasks. There is also the very Xandros excellent file manager which does one thing that I haven't noticed in my *buntu playing - namely provide a tool to automount samba fileshares. The file manager is also the way you get to a console window to let you do all the other stuff you want to do.

What is missing from the initial eee screen is a "start" button. Hence the only way to start applications is to press the "home" button on the keyboard which minimizes the running applications and lets you see the background. Another thing that is AWOL is the multi-workspace support and a third is the lack of a link to a regular text editor. Fortunately adding those is
all about as trivial as can be, and at the same time you can add some other repositories such as the Xandros 4.0 one and do some other minor tweaks.

What you can't fix is the screen height issue and the fact that for some dialogs the OK button is below the bottom of the screen. Take Kalarm as an example program - although the effect manifests itself with others too - and see this image of the 480 pixel screen. Only when you plug in the external monitor (800x600 by default - it may be possible to increase this) do you see the rest of the dialog. You can try and drag the dialog up but it doesn't work unless you know the trick of pressing the ALT key as you click on the dialog and drag it. In fact this screen height issue is probably the one thing that really irritates me most about the eee. This is especially because it looks like you ought to be able to fit an 800x600 screen in instead of the 800x480 screen that ships. Those extra 120 vertical pixels would be a 25% increase in screen area and they would make a lot of activities (from writing to surfing the net to displaying powerpoint presentations and excel sheets) a lot better.

Other than screensize I can't see anything to gripe about really. The keyboard is surprisingly good - my main problem is that I'm used to a swiss/german QwertZ keyboard and my Chinese eee has a US QwertY keyboard - although the requirement to press FN for pgup pgdn home and end is slightly annoying. The video, wifi, ethernet and USB ports all work. There is a modem port that is blocked out - its going to remain that way for me because I can't imagine using a modem these days. The wifi and ethernet networking functions are easily enabled, configured etc. My major problem was in failing to spell my WPA key right - one of those trifling PEBKAC faults that can't be blamed on the product. One other minor gripe is that the File Manager option to auto reconnect network shares doesn't play well with wifi so that the stored first network share always fails because it is attempted before the wifi has got itself started. The only real irritation here is that it doesn't allow you to "retry" the mount attempt but just fails after telling you that the problem occured.

One of my expected uses for this will be to read ebooks. The eee is about the same size as a smallish hardback or thick trade paperback. I've tried reading some Baen HTML ebooks on the eee and they work out fine. I'm sure I could read them unframed to get a little more text per page but the framed version is perfectly adequate for me at present when firefox is put into full-screen mode. RTF ebooks and PDF ones are read by open office and adobe respectively. What is missing is support for other ebook formats - particularly MS Reader and Mobipocket. This is not the fault of Asus, it is the fault of Microsoft and Mobipocket, neither of whom produce a linux version of their reader. The eee does support some other ebook formats, but I don't have any books in those formats to test if its support is any good or not.

Without tweaks the eee plays most of the music I want apart from a few files I have in realplayer format (adding support for this to the eee is not something I expect to be difficult), and likewise seems to play movies and video clips just fine (again there may be codec issues I haven't discovered but fixes for these are pretty easy to find).

The only other thing that I may find to bitch about is the battery life. So far it seems like 3 hours is about as good as it gets, although I suspect that switching off wifi will add a bit to that. To be honest there aren't many times where I expect to need more than 3-4 hours of battery usage but I do find the reported existence of a higher capacity battery intriguing because I can certainly see a few cases (transcontinental flights) where being able to get 8 hours of usage would be good.

I'll be sure to post more positives and negatives as I find them, but so far this is very definitely a winning product, which no dount explains why it seems to be hard to get.

31 January 2008 Blog Home : All January 2008 Posts : Permalink

The End of the Windows Monoculture?

A week or so ago I read this interesting article about Microsoft Office and VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) which makes some interesting points about the windows "monoculture" in business and, in particular, about what it is that causes enterprises to not migrate away from a microsoft platform:

The final reason VBA isn't going away comes from the irony of the Windows monoculture of many firms, that - because everyone has to use the same collection of software, configured much the same way - the corporate configuration has to be capable of running less mainstream applications that are important somewhere in the firm.

So, although most users of Office do not code VBA, and a large percentage don't even use VBA code written for them, enough use is made somewhere that they must have the facility. Think of VBA as like the ladies toilets in a firm where 99% of the staff is male.

This is one of those somewhat hidden but classic "barriers to entry" that high tech VCs and entrepreneurs love and it's tied to the well known fact that people prefer sticking with the devil they know even though they gripe like crazy at the shortcomings. This is not just a high-tech fact, the same trick is exploited by banks and others, such as utility companies, to keep fleecing punters even though the punters could move to an alternative supplier who charged slightly less for the service. We (and I'm certainly guilty of this here and there) could move but we've built up a relationship with our supplier, we've learned how to use the product, how to pay, how to complain when something outrageously bad happens and so on. Switching to a new supplier is a major upheaval and frequently it is hard to justify the time we will take to adjust given the comparatively slow return on the investment.

However the beneficiary of this reluctance to change is liable to see his market disappear pronto as soon as a viable alternative arrives which is sufficiently cheaper/better that it becomes obvious that it is worth changing. A great example that Microsoft would do well to study is the music industry. A decade ago it was hard to get music from other than respected suppliers. Yes CD burners, rippers and MP3 players were there (but all pretty new) and Napster had yet to be formed to facilitate an alternative delivery scheme. If the Music Publishers had read the realeaves correctly they could have strangled the market at birth by embracing some of the techniques (CD burning on demand for example) and cutting prices. I believe one reason why filesharing took off was that once we could buy our own blank CDs it was obvious that the raw cost of a CD was (well) under a dollar so it seemed pretty insulting to be charged $14.95 plus tax for said CD when it had music on it. However as we know the music industry attempted to stem the tide by means of lawsuits and the like and still haven't cut prices much, even iTunes has not drastically reduced the cost per track, its just allowed us to remove the 80% of crap tracks that we were otherwise forced to buy too.

If you look at the price of Microsoft Operating Systems and Office Applications you get to see that Microsoft is reacting to Linux is the same way. When not sold with a new PC, a non-upgrade XP Professional sells in the US for over $250. Vista Home starts at $123 and Ultimate goes for a stonking $399 if you download it from Microsoft - it is actually cheaper to buy it as a physical product. Office Professional is similar ($329.95 if downloaded, $261.99 for the cheapest box). Now obviously these are essentially list prices and we all know that only suckers pay list. If you buy the products ready installed on your new PC, you can find a way to become a student or if you are a company who can afford a site license then the price drops but it doesn't seem to drop much below $100 for the OS (if we assume that professional people don't want Vista Home Basic) and $75 for Office 2007. I just bought an Asus Eee - price $349 at Amazon - and if I were to put Microsoft software on that legally then I'd be out anywhere from another $200 (upgrades, mumble mumble) to $600.

Given that for those of us with an ADSL line (or other broadband connection) ISOs of Ubuntu and other flavours of Linux can be downloaded in maybe a quarter of an hour and that these isos are free (less the $0.10 or so cost of the CD) and
given that you can get a very decent PC for under $500 (ignoring the eee for the moment and the OS) then it seems silly to add $200 or so for Office, Windows XP etc.

So far Microsoft has remained relatively healthy because of the enterprise monoculture and the resistance to change. If, as I suspect, we are coming to a time of recession then people will be looking to shave expenses and it may well be that one expense enterprises decide to shave is the cost of more Microsoft licenses. After all, for all except a few awkward macros, Open Office works just as well and is quick to adapt to and, especially if a Corporate IT department does the installation, so is Linux these days. If Open Office and Linuc result in savings $100-$200/ year/ employee then the pressure to change starts looking irresistble when profits are under pressure (after all at $100/ year /employee a 10,000 person enterprise is saving a cool $1 million a year).

As soon as someone comes up with a relatively painless way to migrate VBA macros and scripts to Open Office using something like python, and as soon as some one comes up with a thunderbird plugin that handles outlook calendars (and both of these are things that are being worked on to some extent) then the logjam is going to break. The fact that people hate Vista and that Office 2007 is already dangerously incomaptible with earlier office versions merely means adds impetous to IT departments looking for a non Microsoft alternative.