Everyone has their own opinions about Microsoft. Love them or hate them, you can't deny that they're very successful and that their products are very powerful. Microsoft Windows in its various iterations is the most compatible OS on the market, and Microsoft Office is clearly the most powerful office suite anywhere. You may not like what they do to keep their position in the market, but you can't deny that their products are worth owning.

But all that power is actually a problem. Microsoft's products are sold in part based on their ease of use, their accessibility to everyday computer users and their ability to allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things with their PCs. And in the name of keeping their software easy for everyone, they've gone several steps too far.

I came to this realization the other day when I was reading a magazine ad for Office XP. Actually, it was for Outlook, their free e-mail software. The ad was touting Outlook's ability to remember obscure passwords for multiple accounts, so that the user didn't have to. And my immediate reaction was, "Why should this be a feature?"

The main reason I don't use Outlook on my own computer at work is because it memorizes my password and then won't let it go. Eudora, in contrast, remembers my password for as long as I keep the program running; every time I restart the application I need to enter it again. I like this, because it reassures me that even if someone got into my locked computer while I was away, they couldn't get my e-mail without some more hard work. Besides, what if Outlook crashed its preferences or my hard drive got wiped? If I didn't enter my password regularly, how do I know I'd remember it?

But Microsoft touts this as a feature of its e-mail package: the ability to let you enter obscure unmemorizable passwords once and then forget them. If your system crashes, you'd better hope you wrote them down in your wallet somewhere. It would make much more sense for them to encourage users to make passwords obscure, but easy to remember, and then require them to type it each time to prevent easy unauthorized access.

And then I realized that this is what's really wrong with all of Microsoft's problem-ridden offerings. Outlook also allows you to download and/or run mail attachments automatically, a security blunder equivalent to leaving your front door wide open whenever you're in your house. Visual Basic and VBScript is so powerfully integrated into Windows that crackers can now build deadly viruses with free toolkits. Macros that automate word processing functions can contain viruses that ruin anything they come in contact with. Servers can be set up with "zero administration" and forgotten about until a worms has already wreaked havoc on the entire company. All because Microsoft gives dangerous amounts of power to users who haven't the slightest idea how to use it, without educating them as to why it's dangerous.

This is why Linux zealots love their OS and hate Microsoft's. Sure, it's free and easy to modify, but it's also just hard enough to use to be healthy. It has enough power to let you shoot yourself in the foot, if you play with it long enough, but at least they don't load the gun and unlock the safety before handing it to you.

And as long as Microsoft continues to "dumb down" their products, giving users access to the most powerful features without requiring them to learn about them first, the problem will continue. Yes, users may be demanding these things, because everybody wants to be "high tech" without having to wait. But somewhere, they need to draw the line and say "no novices beyond this point".

If that means they don't sell networking software to anyone who's not certified to administrate it, then I'll be all for that. I'd rather live in a world where you need to pass a test and pay $60 to get online than one where script kiddies can copy and erase your hard drive from halfway across the globe before you realize he's not your cousin from Long Island.