I don't like seeing Microsoft and AOL become the biggest monsters in the computing and Internet world. They're not growing because they have good products. It's because they create a hostile environment for anyone who doesn't want to use their products, or wants to keep their options open.
If most of the people you compute with use those programs, you almost have to use them as well in order to communicate. Once they get on your computer, they're like little Hitlers invading your hard drive as if it were Eastern Europe. They appear as icons or buttons in your other software. They shut down or make it very difficult to use similar programs on the same computer. In report card language, they just don't play nice with their peers.
Other software companies are figuring out the way to success is to shut down your options, too. I got a disc for Earthlink. I already have an Internet provider, but this disk said it came with version 5.0 of the Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser. Like all Bill Gates' programs, it tries to do all my thinking for me; it makes assumptions and proceeds on those assumptions, whether I asked it to or not. I heard 5.0 was better than previous versions, so I thought I'd look at it.
But where it was on the Earthlink disc, I couldn't see. To have Explorer, I have to install the entire Earthlink program. At the beginning of the installation process, before I even know what's installed, it tries to push me out onto the Internet, get my credit card number, assign me an e-mail address, and rearrange my hard drive.
Abort, abort, abort.
Microsoft Word's 5.0 program for old-timey computers was a pretty nice little piece of software. Then they came out with 6.0, which moved so slowly, and was so huge, as soon as I registered my copy, a free set of upgrade discs came in the mail trying to fix the bloat.
Then the monster came out, Word 98 with Excel and PowerPoint attached, whether you wanted them or not. I didn't and wouldn't pay. They figured that out soon enough and provided the programs individually. But even my supposedly bare bones version of Microsoft Word 98 is too fat.
Your first weeks with the new Word are spent telling it to stop thinking for you. If you type a paragraph that begins with the number 1, it thinks the next paragraph should begin with the number 2. I like to use two dashes. It likes square bullets. It doesn't ask me if I want to change, it goes ahead and changes it. It's always correcting my grammar, and it's not always right.
Good grief, Bill Gates, most of us know how to type a letter! Bill's software designers think we're a world of bozos who need help with the most basic procedures, and yet they load up these programs with doodads that most of us won't use or ever understand. To use them you have to scratch your head a lot.
One I still haven't been able to turn off is an annoying warning message that comes up continually, telling me that if I want to go online, even though all I'm doing is saving or opening a Word document, I have to reconfigure my computer to communicate with AOL the way AOL prefers. Who said I want to go online?! I didn't.
Which brings me to AOL. Any attachments, even if it's processed in the standard way for e-mail, acquires a coating of AOL when it comes through AOL. It has an AOL icon, and unless you know some tricks to open the file with other programs that are clever at opening stuff, only AOL can open the mail attachment. I had to get an AOL account hooked onto my regular Internet just to deal with my friends and their funky AOL polluted mail.
AOL is a near constant inundation of advertising messages. But its attraction is its infamous chat rooms. Nearly 20 years ago, I was visiting these chat rooms when Steve Case's worldwide singles bar was a little outfit called Q-Link for people who owned Commodore computers with modems. It was full of perverts and people looking for verbal sex and begging for your phone number. I haven't dared set foot in any chat room in the last decade.
A friend of mine got a brand new iMac for Christmas, opened an AOL account, and let the neighborhood children play with it. They went into a room named Teen Talk on AOL. That evening when we checked her e-mail, there were more than 60 messages from porno sites inviting her to visit. Her address had been downloaded by hundreds of perverts from the few minutes the kids were in the Teen Talk room. The inundation of pornographic solicitations went on for days. It may still be going on. If you have an AOL account, deleting the junk mail without reading it just becomes a part of your daily routine.
Netscape, which Steve Case also bought, automatically installs the Instant Messenger module of AOL, without asking if I want it. I have to root through my system software and find the components and delete them. Another charming contribution Bill Gates has made to our lives is No Choice. We get things whether we want them or not, and unless you know where to a) find the lines of code in your system and b) know which ones to delete, you can't get it out of a Windows system.
Who wants Instant Messenger anyway? Only the wallflowers of computer land, people who sign on and just sit there, watching the colors, hoping some stranger will speak to them. When I'm online, I'm working and to see a little box pop up from someone I only marginally know, who has nothing to do, who wants to chat about nothing, hey. Please. What kind of invasion of privacy is this? Don't put me on your Buddy List! I'm not your Buddy!
No other software programs are this obnoxiously predatory. Photoshop doesn't decide it likes more blue in my photos. QuarkXPress doesn't question my choice of fonts. And wait, I can't think of another program not owned by Gates or Case now.
In the Book of Revelations, one of the signs of the end times is that we'll all have the mark of the Beast on our foreheads, the dreaded 666. Without the mark, we'll be unable to buy and sell or process ourselves through life. We'll be under the thumb of an all-controlling government. Many have poohed this ancient prediction because they visualize a literal devil branding a 666 into our foreheads. That's not going to happen.
Not like that. It's a metaphor for Microsoft and AOL. It's your e-mail address, your software registration number. It's the mark of the beast, the herding of the goats, and the doorway we're being herded through says "No Choice." Like the Borg of science fiction who absorb everything with the announcement, "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated," such is Microsoft and AOL. Resistance is futile. We will own everything. You must be compatible.
Mariane Matera is a writer who lives in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.