It’s been 20 years of investigative journalism

Brian livingston By Brian Livingston

When I started writing articles for technology magazines 20 years ago, I wondered whether the principles of investigative journalism could be applied to the computer industry.

Little did I know then that there was an endless supply of dirt to be dug up.

As I look ahead, changes are coming that I’d like you to know about. Looking back, I see that some of the stories I followed as a contributor to various publications arestill having an impact on our lives today:

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InfoWorld, 1991 to 2003. To great fanfare, Microsoft in early 1993 released MS-DOS 6.0 featuring DoubleSpace, a newfangled disk compression scheme. Headaches for pioneers soon arose. In a May 3, 1993, column, I reported “problems running Windows with DOS 6.0.” That same day, InfoWorld published a cover story revealing disk corruption caused by the new disk operating system.

Unfortunately, Microsoft forced InfoWorld to print a partial retraction on May 10 because the magazine could not replicate every case of corruption. Other computer magazines reviewed DOS 6.0 and said they didn’t see any problems.

To my knowledge, I was the first journalist to reveal precisely how DOS 6.0 created “La Brea tar pits” that wiped out files. In a series of columns on Aug. 23, Aug. 30, and Sept. 6 (see Figure 1), I publicized a free utility called Jeopardy Detector that turned the border of a PC monitor bright red when DOS 6.0 was in this condition.

InfoWorld column on disk corruption
Figure 1. Revealing exactly how Microsoft’s software was corrupting disk files was the first step in getting Redmond to fix its operating system.

With the technical details made clear, other magazines were able to confirm the problem. Within months, Microsoft was forced to renounce DOS 6.0. Because IBM had released a competing product named PC-DOS 6.1, Microsoft’s upgrade was called MS-DOS 6.2. In an unprecedented move, the software giant released the upgrade as a free download, as reported at the time by computer writer Alan Zisman.

How it affects you. Whether because of the financial expense or the sheer embarrassment, Microsoft never produced another standalone DOS after version 6.22, a minor upgrade. As soon as Windows 95 was released in mid-1995, users no longer had to first install a separate product called DOS. Microsoft’s conversion to graphical operating systems was complete — a momentous shift. Good riddance to character mode.

CNET News, 2000 to 2001. In the weekly Wired Watchdog column for CNET, I sought to expose fraud on the Web. One of my biggest finds was the “youth filter” that the AOL online service was promoting in 2000.

I found that the filter had a hidden but severe political agenda. AOL’s filter would allow users to visit the site of the Republican Party but not the Democratic Party or the Green Party. Promotions of guns were available at sites such as Colt, Browning, and the National Rifle Association — but AOL blocked such well-known gun-safety organizations as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Million Mom March, as I wrote on April 24, 2000. (See Figure 2.)

CNET wired watchdog column on youth filters
Figure 2. Youth filters such as the ones AOL used were found to have an explicit political agenda.

How it affects you. AOL soon discontinued its use of the filter, which had been provided by the Learning Company, a firm that the toy giant Mattel had acquired in 1999 for $3.5 billion. Mattel divested itself of the subsidiary by the end of 2000 at a near-total financial loss. Today, there’s less emphasis on trying to prevent teens from seeing some skin and more emphasis on filtering out true security threats. Making security our first priority benefits us all.

Windows Secrets Newsletter, 2004 to 2010. One of the newsletter’s longest-running stories was the fact that Windows Vista included a built-in procedure that allowed its cheaper “upgrade” version to perform a clean install. This was something that only the more-expensive “full” version was supposedly able to do.

As I reported on Feb. 1, 2007, using the feature required no hacking — Microsoft had knowingly programmed the trick in. Vista’s “full” version could be seen as merely an overpriced head fake designed by the company to make the price of its “upgrade” version seem reasonable by comparison. (The clean-install procedure was outlined to me by my Windows Vista Secrets co-author Paul Thurrott, who wrote a short blog update about it.)

Various low-level Microsoft executives berated us publicly, claiming that the technique should never have been revealed. But Microsoft made sure the trick remained in Vista Service Pack 1, as reported by WS associate editor Scott Dunn on April 3, 2008. And Windows 7 even enhances the procedure, incorporating a new command to make the steps more user-friendly, as Woody Leonhard wrote on Nov. 2, 2009.

How it affects you. Microsoft’s pricing games with its products may be coming to an end. With the release of Office 2010 this year, Redmond is offering simplified pricing for its office suite, below 2007′s “upgrade” price and “full” price, according to Woody’s June 16 story (paid content). To be sure, there are still different prices for home, business, and professional editions of Office 2010. But setting one low base price for each edition — without consumers needing to prove they previously owned a particular product — is a step toward rationality by Microsoft.

It’s time for a transition. Since my first real column — for Systems Integration, a glossy monthly (1990 to 1991) — I’ve also been a contributing editor over the years for PC World, eWeek, PC/Computing, Windows Sources, and Windows Magazine. By my count, I’ve written more than 1,000 articles, sold more than 2.5 million copies of 11 books (nine with remarkable co-authors like Davis Straub, Bruce Brown, Bruce Kratofil, and Paul Thurrott), and hammered out a million e-mails, ranging from the mundane to the maddeningly technical. I’m ready for that change I mentioned above.

I’m retiring from Windows Secrets today and turning the reins over to new hands. As the newsletter has grown from 0 to 400,000 subscribers over the past several years, the demands on my time gradually shifted from writing to more-sedate managerial duties. As a result, I haven’t written any content for the paid section of the newsletter since December 2005. No loss: senior editors Fred Langa and Woody Leonhard, plus all the other contributors who bring you Windows Secrets, have more collective knowledge to give you than I could ever hope to match.

Tracey capenAs my last official act, I’ve promoted Tracey Capen (left) from technical editor to editor in chief. Truth be told, he’s been performing the top editorial job on the Windows Secrets Newsletter for months. Tracey’s experience as executive editor of reviews for PC World for 10 years, preceded by stints as a senior editor of InfoWorld and Corporate Computing magazines, makes him extremely qualified to bring you fresh information on Windows.

To ensure that Tracey has the resources he needs to grow the newsletter, Windows Secrets is joining the iNET Interactive network. iNET Interactive is an online media company operating a portfolio of services dedicated to tech professionals and enthusiasts.

You may recognize many of iNET’s services, including Hot Scripts (resources for Web developers), Web Hosting Talk (the Internet’s largest Web-hosting information site), DB Forums (resources for database administrators), and Overclockers (a community focused on performance computing). For more information, see iNET Interactive.

My one regret during my career is that it was impossible for me to reply personally to every e-mail from thousands of readers seeking help with Windows problems. One of my greatest satisfactions, therefore, has been the 2009 integration of the WS Lounge (formerly Woody’s Lounge) into WindowsSecrets.com.

Very soon, the Lounge will work side-by-side with a network of discussion boards such as DB Forums and Overclockers. The flow of ideas between the complementary communities can only make them even better places for computer users to exchange information.

After two decades in which I’ve tried to unveil for you the mysteries of Windows, I hope you’ll allow me to take a long vacation, get a lot of sleep, dream big dreams, and refresh myself. I’ll probably do a bit of consulting. Maybe I’ll start an airline.

If you need to reach me, you can always send e-mail via the Windows Secrets contact page. Your message will be forwarded to me whether I’m in Mogadishu, Machu Picchu, or anywhere in between.

My thanks to everyone who’s ever read my words, contributed a hot tip, or both. Keep on enjoying Windows Secrets and keep sending in your findings, so your tireless columnists can keep researching them, writing them up, and raising hell.

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Brian Livingston is co-author of 11 books in the Windows Secrets series (Wiley Publishing).
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-08-05: