Saturday, July 14, 2007

Will Microsoft turn your desktop into a digital sign?

I'm perfectly comfortable with the concept of commercial advertising in retail venues. After all, these are businesses whose primary goal is to make money by selling their wares. By going to a store, I'm essentially broadcasting that I might be interested in purchasing something offered there, and I fully expect to encounter posters, packaging, POP displays, kiosks and digital signs letting me know what's for sale, what's on sale, and so on.

Likewise, I understand the need for commercial advertising on network TV. The networks are businesses that are essentially giving away paid-for content for free. They have to make up that shortfall (and hopefully turn a profit) somehow, so in come the commercials. I'm sure we can have hours of heady academic debates over the nature of advertising, its use (or misuse) by various agents of evil, and the propagation of culture through Marxist State Apparatuses, but the bottom line is, I like watching The Simpsons on FOX on Sunday nights, and my two options are either to purchase the DVD boxed sets every season, or endure a few minutes of commercials while watching on broadcast TV. (Nevermind that I do both in this particular case.)

Now, my home PC is another matter entirely. I've paid Mr. Dell and Mr. Gates a fair amount of money for this bit of technology, and given the profits that we know these companies are making, it's safe to say that they're not giving away anything. Consequently, when I boot up my computer, I expect it to go right to my plain, intentionally unadorned desktop. Likewise, when I fire up Word or Excel, I expect to be taken directly to my tools and document.

Where am I going with all this?

Well, apparently this last ad-free zone may soon come under attack, if this latest Microsoft patent application is anything to judge by. Let's have a quick look at the summary:

An advertising framework registers context data sources and advertising display clients from a variety of resources on a local computer. The ad framework may then receive context data and display triggers from the registered context data sources. The context data and display triggers may be processed and an advertising request generated and sent to an external advertising source. Non-advertising content may also be supported. When a targeted advertisement is received in response, a display manager may send the ad to an appropriate display client. When the ad has been presented a the advertising framework will communicate to the advertising supplier who may apportion and credit advertising revenue to the participating parties.
While there's no mention of when -- or even if -- this kind of "feature" will ever be integrated into the next version of Windows, we do know that Microsoft is hell-bent on getting into the advertising market:
Why not put all three together and deliver a system that allows MS to sell a "cheap," ad-supported version of the OS that either derives revenue from placing spots on the desktop or else annoys the user into "upgrading" to an unencumbered version? Or, since MS knows they have a desktop monopoly with no good alternatives (yet), why not just put ads on every desktop? Who cares if people complain, they have no where to go!

But why stop there? Microsoft could then search our hard disks looking for information with which to deliver personalized ads. Does Quicken show that you're spending 20% of your income on dining out? MS will pump ads for your local restaurants right to your desktop. Does your My Photos folder have lots of files from your last vacation? Maybe they'll send down ads for a competing chain of hotel, or from a different city's travel board.

Think it's unlikely? It might be right now, but then again, ten years ago would it have seemed likely that a single organization would control 25% of all internet advertising (or that internet advertising would be a multi-billion dollar industry, for that matter)?

Bottom line: Commercial advertisements in public, retail environments: OK. Commercial advertisements in free, over-the-air TV broadcasts? OK. Commercial advertisements built in to my personal computer running a fully paid-for operating system supplied by convicted monopolist with questionable ethics? BAD IDEA.

Tags: digital signage, Microsoft, big brother

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