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Microsoft lives to see another day

Microsoft lives to see another day. I’m of two minds on the Microsoft breakup. As a good little Republican, I believe in free enterprise and history demonstrates again and again that the best way to kill something is to regulate it. Government is reasonably good at protecting us from thugs, when it wants to be, and it’s best at protecting us from thugs when it’s not meddling in things it’s not good at doing.
However, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Microsoft is a thug.

Microsoft rightfully recognized OS/2 as a threat to its empire and wanted to get it gone, quickly, before the public realized that Windows 3.1 was just a pile of unstable crap not worthy of being called beta software and started buying something that didn’t crash three times a day. Knowing that IBM is a big, slow company whose various divisions usually don’t even realize they’re part of the same behemoth, Microsoft attacked. As Windows 95’s release date grew nearer, Microsoft knew IBM’s PC division would want to sell Windows 95 pre-installed on their PCs, since no company wanted the distinction of being the only company that couldn’t sell you a Windows 95 PC. Microsoft told IBM that if they wanted to bundle Win95 with their PCs and continue to sell OS/2, well, then, they could just go buy their Windows 95 licences at retail.

Finally, IBM negotiated a compromise. They got their Win95 licenses, but at the price of not being able to market their vastly superior alternative anymore.

Microsoft saw a little company called Netscape as a threat, because its cofounder, a young, hotheaded programmer fresh out of college by the name of Marc Andreesen, publicly stated his ambitions to make his Web browser more important than the operating system it ran on. That’s a lofty goal. Strong talk. But what 23-year-old college graduate doesn’t walk across the stage thinking he or she can conquer the world? Bill Gates wouldn’t understand that feeling, seeing as he never managed to get a degree, but anyone else with the self-discipline to play the game for four years does. And when you’re Marc Andreesen, who managed to write both popular Web browsers, one of them while you’re still in college, you have more than a feeling you can change the world. You already know it. You have evidence! So of course you talk big.

Andreesen paid a tall price for thinking big and talking big. Microsoft went to NCSA and licensed the other Web browser Andreesen wrote, slapped its logo on it, and called it Internet Explorer. Initially they sold it as part of the Plus pack, but since Netscape was a far better browser, Microsoft wisely decided to compete on price. They improved it and started giving it away. Back when the Japanese started selling minivans at below cost, it was called dumping. But laws that apply to everything else don’t apply to computer software, because lawmakers and judges are morons who have no understanding of technology, and Gates, being the son of a lawyer, knew it. So Microsoft got away with it. Netscape, unable to compete, died a very slow, painful death.

But consumers are so much better off now, aren’t they? Rather than pay for a Web browser that sometimes crashes (or, as usually was the case, getting it for free when they sign up with an ISP who bought a bunch of Netscape licenses in bulk), they get a browser/operating system combo that crashes a lot and often takes the whole system down with it.

Now, somehow, a tiny company in Seattle that specializes in streaming audio is a threat to Microsoft’s OS monopoly. I guess when people are listening to underground radio stations using a piece of software that doesn’t display Microsoft’s Windows logo, they’re not thinking wonderful and lovely thoughts about Microsoft and therefore they’re a threat. So Microsoft makes streaming audio part of the OS and foists it on people, even if they don’t have a sound card. Listening to MP3s is an essential, inseperable function of the operating system, after all.

Now, RealAudio makes my life pure hell sometimes and I’d love to see the company roll over and die. But just because they had a good idea and a poor implementation and ambition to grow doesn’t give Microsoft the right to kill them just because they have a product the marketplace likes and some day might use that revenue to become bigger competition than they are now. The logical conclusion of that logic is for Microsoft to send out hit men to take out any programmer who dares work for somebody other than Microsoft or a company like Symantec or Adobe that Microsoft can wrap around its little finger.

And yes, Justice Penfield Jackson is a moron with a big mouth. He was understandably livid at Microsoft for its courtroom antics and doublespeak. However, rather than opening his mouth, ordering their breakup, then opening his mouth some more, he should have just held them in contempt of court. They fabricated evidence when they shot the video that attempted to prove that Edward Felten’s program didn’t work. Jackson caught them. The solution isn’t to extract revenge by opening your mouth outside the courtroom. That’s just stooping to Microsoft’s level. Holding them in contempt and saying why would have been more than enough.

But it’s increasingly looking like none of this matters, for once. Microsoft’s back to its old tricks, bundling more and more stuff that people may or may not want into their operating system, and now they’re doing more than just bullying their competitors. They’re bullying their customers as well. Not many companies will appreciate Microsoft forcing them to spend thousands of dollars to prove they’ve never ever installed a copy of Windows twice. The companies that are guilty, of course, have no leg to stand on. But a lot of companies end up paying for Windows twice. A copy of Windows comes with every PC they buy, but as part of a volume agreement with Microsoft, they end up buying, for whatever reason, an additional copy of Windows for every PC on their network. But now that Microsoft is flailing around for revenue, you’re guilty until proven innocent. If you own one PC and Microsoft knows about it, then it’s entirely possible you own two PCs and you loaded your copy of Windows on it too.

Some of the audited companies are understandably upset and suddenly looking for alternatives, where they were formerly in Microsoft’s camp 100%.

And, of course, Microsoft’s attempts to force people into upgrading, even when Windows 95 and Office 95 are perfectly suited to many tasks, will alienate some. Microsoft’s oft-misunderstood .Net initiative has infuriated people that I never expected to leave the Microsoft camp. Some buy right into it, but some always do. Meanwhile, Linux and its associated software marches on, getting better every day. Ironically, a similar tactic that Microsoft used to murder Netscape in cold blood–giving the software away for free–now threatens the cash cow of NT/2000 server. Servers are enormously profitable–you just take your desktop OS, call it a server, charge five times as much for it, and then charge a few bucks per seat for the privelige of connecting to it. The real cost of a Windows NT/2000 server usually runs five figures. And most companies have several servers. Linux, meanwhile, is low-cost (free if you want), more stable, and more versatile.

Since Microsoft’s current business model requires not just profits, but sustained exponential growth, Linux’s attacks on the server front may allow justice to finally be administered, no matter how incompetent the U.S. Government’s Keystone Kops turn out to be.

One can only hope.

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7 thoughts on “Microsoft lives to see another day”

  1. Of course, your entire argument places blame with Microsoft and none on Netscape. Remember who started giving their browser away? Remember who took their successful browser and bloated it full of other features? Remember who then decided to start charging for their browser?

  2. I must agree with Mr. McPherson — and, indeed, take his comments further. I believe that the history of small computer commercialization shows that Andreesen, Jobs, et al. are somewhere between incredibly arrogant and sociopathic — and not particularly competent (outside of a narrow sphere having to do with computer hardware and software) to boot. Gates may not be — probably isn’t — a better person than they are, but he is a better businesman than they are.

    Had history been changed so that Gates was run over by a truck in 1981, the alternate software companies may not have done as much damage, but only because they couldn’t, not because they wouldn’t have liked to have been what Microsoft has become and done the things it has. We rightly do not hold criminal trials based on what a person might have thought but not done, but neither is impotence the moral equivalent of innocence.

    As for the OS/2 matter…as I am an IT consultant currently under contract to IBM, I’ll recuse myself from that discussion ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Blame on Netscape? Netscape started off as a shareware product and eventually went fully commercial, though it always remained free for educational use. Netscape was an extremely successful commercial product until Microsoft started dumping.

    I fail to see where Netscape did anything wrong there.

  4. I have to comment on Netscape here. I’m an old codger from the days of Mosaic 1.0. I was exclusively a Netscape guy until IE3. I’d say every web browser was buggy back then. And – if memory serves – they were all free, too.

    MS didn’t kill Netscape. Netscape merely fell over, after living like kings from their paper wealth. They became opulent: the ticket concierge in the lobby, the fresh squeezed OJ, the at-desk massages. All while reporting a few thousand dollars of profit. Is this MS’s fault?

    Sure, MS wanted them gone (and you think Netscape wanted MS around?), but it’s disingenuous for Netscape to cry "poor us" when they slit their own throats. And ask Jamie Zawinski about how far ahead Netscape was in their technology. Stability aside (and IE has the upper hand there these days), I personally think IE has a better feature set these days, although there’s not much more I could think to add to a 5.X browser.

    I also have to point out that "free" in OS-space is far different than "free" in browser-space. Browsers are comparatively simple pieces of software (unless, of course, it IS the OS ๐Ÿ™‚ ); i.e. very low TCO. OS have comparatively high TCO: you have to pay for administrators, etc. So, Linux is not "free" in the enterprise. Its *license* may be free. But whether or not you’re paying for that in more expensive administration costs (salaries) is the rub. In the end, I don’t think MS is much of a bargain (if it is at all), but *nothing* is free in the back room. Moral: TCO > licensing costs.

    As far as the new MS technologies go, I’d fear XP more than .NET. .NET is about opening applications up to the web; it’s actually a lot more open (standards-wise) than the MS we’re used to. Sun is emulating it already. XP, on the other hand, seems to make the OS less useful to those who choose non-MS utility software. The new licensing model isn’t exactly winning converts either. So there’s still plenty to dislike. ๐Ÿ™‚ But I think Netscape’s "murder" and Linux’s "freeness" are often overstated.

  5. Browser sales was more than 70% of Netscape’s revenue until IE3 came along. I don’t care how wasteful or how careful you are with your cash; when a product that brings in 70% of your revenue suddenly becomes worthless, you’ve got major problems. Of course Netscape fell behind at that point. They didn’t have as much to dump into browser R&D.

    As for Linux’s freeness in the back room, point taken, but you can’t ignore $20,000 for NT/2000 server plus CALs versus 50 bucks for a copy of Red Hat. Not to mention downtime is very expensive, and Linux crashes much less often and it boots a lot faster.

    XP’s licensing will, hopefully, come back to haunt Microsoft. Windows XP and Office XP deactivating on a whim is unacceptable, and despite Microsoft’s assurances to the contrary, Office XP is doing just that. That’s an annoyance for a home user, but it’s the kiss of death for a business. It makes StarOffice and WordPerfect Office suddenly look a whole lot better.

  6. If "free" was evil in MS’s case, then why aren’t we stringing up Red Hat and Suse, since the OS (according to Justice Dept. anti-trust lawyers) is MS’s lifeblood? Linux is merely a way to "steal" from MS, right? Nope, it’s called "market forces". I do hope that Linux has a great deal of success, because it’ll force prices to be at least reasonable, and let the best product win (or let them co-exist). But the only difference between MS vs Netscape and Linux vs MS is that the former "assault" was by a bid, bad company wanting to continue making money (captalism); Linux’s push forward is a populist movement behind a worthy and very competitive product (and, again, one that I do hope has continued and expanded success).

    Still, I contend that Netscape hacked itself off at the knees. The numbers I quoted before were from a quarterly statement. In that report (and I wish I had it handy; I think it was from ’98), Netscape *was* spending millions on R&D and marketing (and employee perks). They were also branching into the server and portal business. The point is that if they’d kept a superior browser product, MS’s blows would have merely glanced off of them. Again, I say see Jamie Zawinski’s postmortem when he left Netscape. He certainly thought the company that basically made the web what it is quit innovating. They became complacent. They put their collective head in the guillotine. MS merely had to let the blade fly.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your numbers, or which versions of W2K Server you’re referencing. But a quick look at MS’s pricing page shows $3999 for W2K Advanced Server and 25 CALs. A 20-pack of CALs is $799. I’m not seeing the $20K.

    And MS claim five-nine reliability with W2K Server. My experience would say Linux can match that (either OS must be configured intelligently, of course). And the last time we rebooted a 2K server at work was when a power supply died. The point here is that – even if the software WAS $20K – you’re paying someone to make it all work. $20K is but a fraction of a good sysadmin’s $60K salary.

    I played with StarOffice right after Sun bought it. And Office 95 looks really good. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s not there yet, but at least it’s heading toward a good spot, not away as MS Office is. Anything with XP in its name won’t hit my machine.

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