Posted 02/06/2000 7:14pm by John Lettice

Microsoft to relocate to hi-tech secret island to escape Feds

OK, we give in. When BBC news reported this morning that Microsoft might move to Canada in order to escape the hangman's noose, we though, what a ludicrous story - there's no way we're reporting that. We carried on ignoring it, reasoning we could spare the hits, when Slashdot picked up on it, and as it dominoed its way through lesser news organisations. But then we saw the Dow Jones newswire headed "Microsoft up on Canada report."

So we give in. If everybody else is going to chase after this one, and the markets really believe the stock should rise because there's a prospect of Microsoft escaping breakup by emigrating, then we'll cover it. But The Register's guide to saving your butt from the Feds involves a lot more than just a simple hop across the border. Read on.

Shifting domicile
If Microsoft wants to escape the long arm of the law, it not only has to put itself beyond jurisdiction, but its products and sales as well. So just a physical move of the HQ and company domicile wouldn't work. The US authorities have in the past been perfectly happy, eager indeed, to ignore international law and bust foreign companies for trading with other foreign companies, Cuban ones, for example.

So even if the Canadian authorities were willing to have their mouths stuffed with gold, the US ones would keep on coming. And then there's the small matter of all those private antitrust suits lining up against Microsoft - are they going away because Bill's run off to Canada? We think not. If he stays legal, the law will catch up with him.

We can rule out most other reputable alternative domiciles for similar reasons. Cambridge, which has done very well out of the charitable Mr Gates recently, has been mentioned as a possible bolt-hole. But although this is something our Mr Blair - who thinks Gates is a brilliant inventor, god help him - would dearly love, there are currently whole libraries being assembled in Brussels to throw at Microsoft. The EU is as unsafe as the US.

International outlaw?
By moving the reasoning on a couple of notches, we reach a scheme that has some merit. There are countries where the writ of international law doesn't entirely reach, and whose pariah status provides some defence against the DoJ. Particularly if it persists in buying lots of Windows PCs, but no strike aircraft.

Practically no country is however entirely invulnerable to US pressure. You might mention Cuba, but Cuba wants relations to be normalised, so there are conditions in which a US request to "bring me the head of the consumer services division" would result in a hapless Dave Cole being airdropped into Florida. Well then, you say, what about up-country Colombia or Myanmar, places where even the local government doesn't go? Bill may have shares in an outfit that builds aircraft carriers, but even the local warlords and drug czars have a bigger attack capability than Microsoft. You dominate the world's desktops, yet you've got to jump for some local coke baron with an AK47 - nope, doesn't work. You need somewhere nobody will find you, somewhere nobody else can go - so...

Billfeld's Island
Given Bill's preference for high tech, semi-subterranean homes, this one will have attractions for him. Put in enough sliding roofs, weird concealed missile silos, mysterious death rays and geeky personal communications devices and it'd probably also be attractive to Microsoft's best, brightest and - oh yes - dysfunctional developers.

The people who did Bill's house have a lot of experience in this kind of stuff, and maybe that was just version 1.0. Maybe Billfeld's Island 2000 is already under construction, with the Canadian story and the shouts of 'No Surrender!' emanating from Redmond being just a cover. Maybe they've finished it. Maybe Bill's there already. Maybe it was the badly-trained double who screwed up the video testimony...

But although we might have figured out a way of getting Microsoft corporate out of the firing line for good, there's still the matter of maintaining the World Domination operations. When the Feds discover Bill's flown the coop, they'll be raiding subs all over the world, hauling Windows out of the distribution channel, forcing Dell to install Linux at gunpoint... We need a new business and distribution model to replace this.

Applying the Cyberporn model to NGWS
Scarey, isn't it? Microsoft has already said it wants to move away from a products-based model to a services one. Microsoft will run the servers, you'll get the services via your client machine, and you won't be able to stop, because you're locked in. If the servers are on super-secret Billfeld's Island, Microsoft can run this one despite being an international outlaw. Imagine the FBI raiding corporations suspected of running Office 2000, and MIS, hooked on proprietary formats, hiding it away. 'Another shot of DirectX, fast, for pity's sake...'

And if Microsoft products were illegal substances, the added street cred would aid sales. Which of course could be conducted via tried and tested mechanisms used to distribute cyberporn. Microsoft's experience in 'fighting' piracy will also help. Maybe those activities were just a cover for figuring out how the channel works.

What then?
Well, Blofeld wasn't happy just hiding in a secret island armed to the teeth, and neither will Bill be. But what about Teledesic? That's supposed to be lots of little satellites, but what if this is just a cover too? Say, four to six big ones. The doors to the fake volcano on Billfeld's Island slide open, and the huge satellite dish rises out of it, sweeping the sky until it connects with TeleDeathray, way out in space. Bill strokes his cat absent-mindedly as a weapon with the power of the Sun focusses first on the Eastern United States, then narrows to Washington, then to Janet Reno... ®