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File Explorer fiasco: Window to Microsoft's mixed-up motivations

MS craves extra revenue, but ad pipelines in the OS are hostages to fortune

Opinion Queen Elizabeth I is said to have expressed her attitude to her subjects' private beliefs by noting: "I do not seek to open windows to men's souls." Microsoft Windows 11 has few such qualms. A new feature, accidentally enabled in an Insider build, not only opened a channel between the company and the quintessential tool, File Explorer, it then stuffed it with adverts.

It is an open secret that Microsoft is increasingly keen on using Windows as an ad delivery platform, to the exasperation of users and the despair of all who have to manage the corporate computing environment.

Windows 10 is replete with lock screen ads, suggested apps in the Start menu, nagging taskbar pop-ups, notification nudges, and even a brief excursion into third party ads in its Mail client.

Now the company has taken a utility that's been at the heart of Windows since the first version and plastered it with advertisements. It's not unfair to assume that Microsoft has developed at least the technology and potentially the appetite to open content pipelines anywhere it feels like doing so.

As any cultural theorist will tell you, adverts contain a lot more than just the thing they're advertising. When, where and how they appear can tell you a great deal about the advertiser, how they see their market and what their real priorities are. There are two big messages in the File Manager farago, both revealing aspects of Microsoft's own internal thoughts and deeds that the company would rather not advertise at all. 

When, where and how adverts appear can tell you a great deal about the advertiser, how they see their market and what their real priorities are

As with the third-party ads in Windows 10 Mail, once people noticed and started asking questions, Microsoft was quick to say it had no intention of actually doing the File Explorer advertising scheme. They both got out by mistake, you see, and any hint that they were part of an actual planned public experience is completely accidental. 

Perhaps these things were internal tests only, but why would anyone think them worth spending development time on when the user pushback was always going to be so obvious? More importantly, what does it say about Microsoft's internal quality control that these things get out and nobody within the company even notices until Twittertime?

What else, not so obvious but just as troublesome, is in there that's escaping the Redmond containment field? 

This concern is multiplied by the second message wrapped up in these Madison Avenue mutant features: Microsoft counts their development and use as worth the extra security risk they inherently present.

It's not just that any extra complication to a system always has the potential to contain a vulnerability. Adverts deliver content, which itself presents a constantly changing threat profile.

We know from the web that third-party adverts can contain a wide spectrum of attacks, from borderline legal links to straight-up driveby malware.

That has been hard enough to manage in the browser environment: does anyone want to have to add various OS features to the list of things to worry about? In exchange for some brightly coloured plea to install Candy Crush while you're trying to juggle five logs, 10 search tabs and an IDE full of faulty code? 

Most of the in-OS advertising has been for Microsoft's own services and products, which is less risky than the open web's potpourri of poisonous pop-ups. Yet if these advertising channels work, there'll be a huge push to use them as more direct sources of cash by offering placements to the usual barrage of "carefully selected third parties" on the basis of wallet size. There's no sign that anyone within Microsoft with any sort of control is setting limits on where the company will go with these, providing the prizes glitter enough. 

Microsoft is putting revenue ahead of security, ahead of productivity, ahead of quality control. Are these the attributes of a reliable enterprise partner who's positioning themselves as the very heart of corporate computing? It won't be the first time the poor bloody ratings and officers in the enterprise engine room are left having to work around Microsoft's misguided business models.

There are rules in this game, and weakening the security and functionally of core components for adventures in advertising breaks a lot of them. Microsoft sees huge revenues from corporate licensing for Windows, and in exchange we're entitled to get a tool that's designed to do the job we need it to do. It's like paying a fortune for the world's finest spanner, only to find the handle shot through with punched-out pitches to buy Satya Nadella's nuts and bolts. 

Enough's enough. Microsoft should take the effort it's putting into annoying us and weakening Windows into better QC, better UX and is better leaving us the hell alone to get on with our technology lives. ®

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