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Why I dislike Microsoft

“Windows 2000,” I muttered as one of my computers fired up so my girlfriend could use it. “Must mean something about the number of bugs that’ll be discovered tomorrow.”
She told me she liked Windows and asked me why I hated Microsoft so much.

It’s been a while since I thought about that. She speculated that I was annoyed that Bill Gates is smarter than me. (Which he probably is, but aside from a couple more books in print, it hasn’t gotten him anything I don’t have that I want.) There’s more to it than that.

I’m still annoyed about the foundation Microsoft built its evil empire upon. In the ’70s, Microsoft was a languages company, and they specialized in the language Basic. Microsoft Basic wasn’t the best Basic on the market, but it was the standard. And when IBM decided it wanted to enter the personal computer market, IBM wanted Microsoft Basic because nobody would take them seriously if they didn’t. So they started talking to Microsoft.

IBM also wanted the CP/M operating system. CP/M wasn’t the best operating system either, but it was the standard. IBM was getting ready to negotiate with Gary Kildall, owner of Digital Research and primary author of the OS, and ran into snags. Gates’ account was that Kildall went flying and kept the IBM suits waiting and then refused to work with them. More likely, the free-spirited and rebellious Kildall didn’t want to sign all the NDAs IBM wanted him to sign.

Microsoft was, at the time, a CP/M subcontractor. Microsoft sold a plug-in board for Apple II computers that made them CP/M-compatible. So IBM approached Microsoft about re-selling CP/M. Microsoft couldn’t do it. And that bothered Gates.

But another Microsoft employee had a friend named Tim Patterson. Tim Patterson was an employee of Seattle Computer Products, a company that sold an 8086-based personal computer similar to the computer IBM was developing. CP/M was designed for computers based on the earlier 8080 and 8085 CPUs. Patterson, tired of waiting for a version of CP/M for the 8086, cloned it.

So Seattle Computer Products had something IBM wanted, and Microsoft was the only one who knew it. So Microsoft worked out a secret deal. For $50,000, they got Patterson and his operating system, which they then licensed to IBM. Patterson’s operating system became PC DOS 1.0.

Back in the mid-1990s, PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak wrote something curious about this operating system. He said he knew of an easter egg present in CP/M in the late 1970s that caused Kildall’s name and a copyright notice to be printed. Very early versions (presumably before the 1.0 release) of DOS had this same easter egg. This of course screams copyright violation.

Copyright violation or none, Kildall was enraged the first time he saw DOS 1.0 because it was little more than a second-rate copy of his life’s work. And while Digital Research easily could have taken on Microsoft (it was the bigger company at the time), the company didn’t stand a prayer in court against the mighty IBM. So the three companies made some secret deals. The big winner was Microsoft, who got to keep its (possibly illegal) operating system.

Digital Research eventually released CP/M-86, but since IBM sold CP/M-86 for $240 and DOS for $60, it’s easy to see which one gained marketshare, especially since the two systems weren’t completely compatible. Digital Research even added multiuser and multitasking abilities to it, but they were ignored. In 1988, DR-DOS was released. It was nearly 100% compatible with MS-DOS, faster, less expensive, and had more features. Microsoft strong-armed computer manufacturers into not using it and even put cryptic error messages in Windows to discourage the end users who had purchased DR-DOS as an upgrade from using it. During 1992, DR-DOS lost nearly 90% of its marketshare, declining from $15.5 million in sales in the first quarter to just $1.4 million in the fourth quarter.

Digital Research atrophied away and was eventually bought out by Novell in 1991. Novell, although the larger company, fared no better in the DOS battle. They released Novell DOS 7, based on DR-DOS, in 1993, but it was mostly ignored. Novell pulled it from the market within months. Novell eventually sold the remnants of Digital Research to Caldera Inc., who created a spinoff company with the primary purpose of suing Microsoft for predatory behavior that locked a potential competitor out of the marketplace.

Caldera and Microsoft settled out of court in January 2000. The exact terms were never disclosed.

Interestingly, even though it was its partnership with IBM that protected Microsoft from the wrath of Gary Kildall in 1981, Microsoft didn’t hesitate to backstab IBM when it got the chance. By 1982, clones of IBM’s PC were beginning to appear on the market. Microsoft sold the companies MS-DOS, and even developed a custom version of Basic for them that worked around a ROM compatibility issue. While there was nothing illegal about turning around and selling DOS to its partner’s competitors, it’s certainly nobody’s idea of a thank-you.

Microsoft’s predatory behavior in the 1980s and early ’90s wasn’t limited to DOS. History is littered with other operating systems that tried to take on DOS and Windows and lost: GeoWorks. BeOS. OS/2. GeoWorks was an early GUI programmed in assembly language by a bunch of former videogame programmers. It was lightning fast and multitasked, even on 10 MHz XTs and 286s. It was the most successful of the bunch in getting OEM deals, but you’ve probably never heard of it. OS/2 was a superfast and stable 32-bit operating system that ran DOS and Windows software as well as its own, a lot like Windows NT. By Gates’ own admission it was better than anything Microsoft had in the 1990s. But it never really took off, partly because of IBM’s terrible marketing, but partly because Microsoft’s strong-arm tactics kept even IBM’s PC division from shipping PCs with it much of the time. BeOS was a completely new operating system, written from scratch, that was highly regarded for its speed. It never got off the ground because Microsoft completely locked it out of new computer bundles.

Microsoft used its leverage in operating systems to help it gain ground in applications as well. In the 1980s, the market-leading spreadsheet was Lotus 1-2-3. There was an alleged saying inside Microsoft’s DOS development group: DOS ain’t done ’til Lotus won’t run. Each new DOS revision, from version 3 onward, broke third-party applications. Lotus 1-2-3, although once highly regarded, is a noncontender in today’s marketplace.

Once Windows came into being, things only got worse. Microsoft’s treatment of Netscape was deplorable. For all intents and purposes, Microsoft had a monopoly on operating systems by 1996, and Netscape had a monopoly on Web browsers. Netscape was a commercial product, sold in retail stores for about $40, but most of its distribution came through ISPs, who bought it at a reduced rate and provided it to their subscribers. Students could use it for free. Since the Web was becoming a killer app, Netscape had a booming business. Microsoft saw this as a threat to its Windows franchise, since Netscape ran well not only on Windows, but also on the Mac, OS/2 and on a number of flavors of Unix. So Microsoft started bunding Internet Explorer with Windows and offering it as a free download for those who already had Windows, or had an operating system other than Windows, such as Mac OS. In other industries, this is called tying or dumping, and it’s illegal. Netscape, once the darling of Wall Street, was bought for pennies on the dollar by AOL, and AOL-Time Warner is still trying to figure out what to do with it. Once Microsoft attained a monopoly on Web browsers, innovation in that space stopped. Internet Explorer has gotten a little bit faster and more standards compliant since IE4, but Microsoft hasn’t put any innovation in the browser for five years. Want popup blocking or tabs? You won’t find either in IE. All of the innovation in that space has come in browsers with a tiny piece of the market.

One could argue that consumers now get Web browsers for free, where they didn’t before. Except every new computer came with a Web browser, and most ISPs provided a browser when you signed up. So there were lots of ways to get a Web browser for free in the mid-’90s.

And when it came to the excesses of the dotcom era, Netscape was among the worst. But whether Netscape could have kept up its perks given its business model is irrelevant when a predator comes in and overnight renders unsalable the product that accounts for 90% of your revenue.

Allegations popped up again after Windows 95’s release that Win95 sabotoged competitors’ office software, such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Within a couple of years, Microsoft Office was a virtual monopoly, with Lotus SmartSuite existing almost exclusively as a budget throw-in with new PCs and WordPerfect Office being slightly more common on new PCs and an also-ran in the marketplace. It’s been five years since any compelling new feature has appeared in Microsoft Office. The most glaring example of this is spam filtering. Innovative e-mail clients today have some form of automatic spam filtering, either present or in development. Outlook doesn’t. “Microsoft Innovation” today means cartoon characters telling you how to indent paragraphs.

And the pricing hasn’t really come down either. When office suites first appeared in 1994, they cost around $500. A complete, non-upgrade retail copy of Microsoft Office XP still costs about $500.

Pricing hasn’t come down on Windows either. In the early 90s, the DOS/Windows bundle cost PC manufacturers about $75. Today, Windows XP Home costs PC manufacturers about $100. The justification is that Windows XP Home is more stable and has more features than Windows 3.1. Of course, the Pentium 4 is faster and less buggy than the original Pentium of 1994, but it costs a lot less. Neither chip can touch Windows’ 85% profit margin.

And when Microsoft wasn’t busy sabotaging competitors’ apps, it was raiding its personnel. Microsoft’s only really big rival in the languages business in the ’80s and early ’90s was Borland, a company founded by the flambouyant Phillippe Kahn. Gates had a nasty habit of raiding Borland’s staff and picking off their stars. It didn’t go both ways. If a Microsoft employee defected, the employee could expect a lawsuit.

Well, Kahn decided to play the game once. He warmed up to a Microsoft staffer whose talents he believed weren’t being fully utilized. The employee didn’t want to jump ship because Microsoft would sue him. Kahn said fine, let Microsoft sue, and Borland would pay whatever was necessary. So he defected. As expected, Gates was enraged and Microsoft sued.

Soon afterward, Kahn and his new hire were in an airport when a Hare Krishna solicited a donation. Kahn handed him $100 on the spot and told him there was a whole lot more in it for him if he’d deliver a message to Bill Gates: “Phillippe just gave us $100 for hot food because he suspects after this lawsuit, your employees are going to need it.”

He delivered the message. Gates wasn’t amused.

It was a bold, brash move. And I think it was pretty darn funny too. But smart? Not really. Borland’s glory days were pretty much over 10 years ago. For every star Borland could lure away, Microsoft could lure away three. Borland’s still in business today, which makes it fairly unique among companies that have taken on Microsoft head-on, but only after several reorganizations and major asset selloffs.

The only notable company that’s taken on Microsoft in the marketplace directly and won has been Intuit, the makers of Quicken. Microsoft even gave away its Quicken competitor, Microsoft Money, for a time, a la Internet Explorer, in an effort to gain market share. When that failed, Microsoft bought Intuit outright. The FTC stepped in and axed the deal.

The thanks Microsoft has given the world for making it the world’s largest software company has been to sell buggy software and do everything it could to force companies and individuals to buy upgrades every couple of years, even when existing software is adequate for the task. While hardware manufacturers scrape for tiny margins, Microsoft enjoys 85% profit margins on its product. But Microsoft mostly sits on its cash, or uses it to buy companies or products since it has a terrible track record of coming up with ideas on its own. The company has never paid dividends, so it’s not even all that much of a friend to its own investors.

For me, the question isn’t why I dislike Microsoft. The question for me is why Microsoft has any friends left.

How Linux could own the education market

How Linux could own the education market. I spent some time yesterday evening working on computers. They were contrasts to the extreme: One, a brand-spankin’ new 1 GHz AMD Duron system with 512MB of RAM and 80 GB of 7200-rpm storage (IDE, unfortunately–but for $800, what do you want?). The other was an elderly AST 486SX/25 running Windows 3.1 belonging to a local teacher who goes to my church.
She teaches kindergarten, and the AST used to be her home computer. When she bought a Compaq Presario a couple of years ago, she took the AST to school. It’s more useful there than in her basement, and there’d be no computer in her classroom if it weren’t for that.

I don’t understand why that is. As much as my sister jokes about it, we don’t exactly live in the ghetto. The school district has money, but it isn’t spending it on computers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your point of view. The majority of people living in Oakville probably own home computers, so this probably isn’t contributing to the technology gap. But I wonder sometimes how things might have been if I’d been exposed to computers a few years earlier.

I was shocked how much I remembered about Windows 3.1. And I was able to figure out how to get her CD-ROM drive to play music CDs. Don’t ask me how; this was the first I’d messed with Windows 3.1 since 1994 and I’d prefer it stay that way–I was so impressed by Windows 3.1 that I’m one of the 12 people who actually went out and paid money for OS/2. I own actual, retail-box copies of OS/2 2.1, 3.0, and 4.0. And I remember distinctly thinking that her computer has enough memory to run OS/2 at least as well as it runs Windows 3.1…

I also remember distinctly thinking that my employer pays someone $15 a pound to haul better computers than hers away several times a year. We regard 486s as junk; low-end Pentiums may also go out, depending on whether the right person finds out about them beforehand. Usually they work just fine–the problem isn’t the computers, it’s people trying to run Internet Exploiter 6 and Office 2000 on them. They’d run Windows 95 and Office 95 perfectly fine.

But a lot of times we can’t give these old computers away because the licenses for the software that originally came with them are long gone. Old computers are useless without software, so no one would want them anyway.

Now, let me tell you something about kids. Kids don’t care much about the computers they use. As long as there’s software on them, they’ll use them. When I was a kid 20 years ago, I used Radio Shack TRS-80 computers at school. The next year, my family moved, and my new school had Commodore 64s. I couldn’t tell much difference. My next-door neighbor had a Radio Shack Color Computer. They were computers. The Commodores had better graphics, but from a usability standpoint, the biggest difference was where the cartridge slot was so you could change programs. Later on I took a summer class at the local junior college, learning about Apple IIs and IBM PCs. I adjusted smoothly. So did all the other kids in the class. Software was software.

Kids don’t care if the computer they’re using runs Windows or Mac OS or Linux. All they care about is whether there are cool programs to run.

So, businesses throw useless computers away, or they give useless computers to schools so they don’t have to pay someone to haul them away. And schools don’t generally know what to do with obsolete computers that lack software.

Linux won’t run fabulously on old 486s, but Debian with a lightweight window manager like IceWM will run OK. (Let’s face it, Windows 3.1 doesn’t run fabulously on them either–it crashes if you breathe wrong.) I know of a project to clone Oregon Trail on Linux. Great start. How about Sea Route to India? I remember playing that on C-64s at school. It may have been a type-in out of a magazine–I don’t remember where exactly it came from. In these violent times, Artillery might be too controversial, but it taught us early on about angles and forces. Artillery was an ancestor to games like Scorched Earth, but without the heavy-duty nukes. Close wasn’t good enough to win in Artillery. You had to be exact. And no blowing up the mountains between you and your opponents either. You had to figure out how to get over them.

But what about doing homework? By the time I was in the sixth grade, they were teaching us how to use word processors and databases and spreadsheets. AbiWord is a fabulous lightweight word processor. It gives you fonts and spell-checking and good page formatting. (I learned word processing on Bank Street Writer. AbiWord is a far, far cry from that. Frankly, I’d rather write a paper with vi than with Bank Street Writer.) Besides being feature-rich, AbiWord’s been lightning fast on every computer I’ve tried it on. Gnumeric is a nice, fast, capable spreadsheet. I don’t know of a free-form database, but I haven’t looked for one lately either. (I don’t think we need to be trying to teach our 6th graders SQL.)

But what about for younger kids? I remember a program called The Factory. The object was you combined chemicals to make monsters. Different chemicals made different monsters. I seem to remember you played around to see what chemicals would make which heads and torsos and arms. Then the computer started showing you monsters and you had to figure out what chemicals to give it to match them. I also remember a program called Snooper Troops. I don’t remember much else about it, other than it was a mystery and you went around looking for clues, and one of my classmates accidentally formatted the disk one day before any of us had managed to solve it. We couldn’t get the disk replaced, because it was out of print.

And Spinnaker had all sorts of simple titles for younger kids that let them tell stories and other stuff. It seemed cool at the time. But that was almost 20 years ago, so about all I remember was that sailboat logo and some corny theme music.

The other thing about those old days was that the majority of these programs were written in Basic. An ambitious teacher could modify them, to make them easier or harder, or improve the graphics a little. As we got older and learned to program, some of us would try our hand at making changes. You can’t do that anymore with Windows or Macintosh educational titles. Open source can bring all that back too, provided the programs are written in languages like Perl or Python. And it can give cash-strapped schools a way to get computers where kids can use them.

Now I’m wondering what it would take to write something like The Factory in Python…

01/11/2001

Mailbag:

My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

It’s that time of year again. MacWorld time. I work with Macs way too much, so of course I have opinions. If you expect me to withhold them, you don’t know me very well.

Let’s face it: Apple’s in serious trouble. Serious trouble. They can’t move inventory. The Cube is a bust–unexpandable, defect-ridden, and overpriced. The low-end G4 tower costs less than the Cube but offers better expandability.  Buying a Cube is like marrying a gorgeous airhead. After the looks fade in a few years, you’re permanently attached to an airhead. So people buy a G4 tower, which has better expandability, or they get an iMac, which costs less.

Unfortunately, that gorgeous airhead metaphor goes a long way with Apple. The Mac’s current product line is more about aesthetics than anything else. So they’ve got glitzy, glamorous cases (not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I hear some people lust after Britney Spears too), but they’re saddled with underpowered processors dragged down by an operating system less sophisticated under the hood than the OS Commodore shipped with the first Amiga in 1985. I don’t care if your PowerPC is more efficient than an equivalently-clocked Pentium IV (so’s a VIA Cyrix III but no one’s talking about it), because if your OS can’t keep that CPU fed with a steady stream of tasks, it just lost its real-world advantage.

But let’s set technical merit aside. Let’s just look at pure practicalities. You can buy an iMac for $799. Or, if you’re content with a low-end computer, for the same amount of money you can buy a low-end eMachine and pair it up with a 19-inch NEC monitor and still have a hundred bucks left over to put towards your printer. Yeah, so the eMachine doesn’t have the iMac’s glitzy looks. I’ll trade glitz for a 19-inch monitor. Try working with a 19-inch and then switch to a 15-inch like the iMac has. You’ll notice a difference.

So the eMachine will be obsolete in a year? So will the iMac. You can spend $399 for an accelerator board for your iMac. Or you can spend $399 for a replacement eMachine (the 19-inch monitor will still be nice for several years) and get a hard drive and memory upgrade while you’re at it.

On the high end, you’ve got the PowerMac G4 tower. For $3499, you get a 733 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, 60 GB HD, a DVD-R/CD-R combo drive, internal 56K modem, gigabit Ethernet you won’t use, and an nVidia GeForce 2 MX card. And no monitor. Software? Just the OS and iMovie, which is a fun toy. You can order one of these glitzy new Macs today, but Apple won’t ship it for a couple of months.

Still, nice specs. For thirty-five hundred bucks they’d better be nice! Gimme thirty-five hundred smackers and I can build you something fantabulous.

But I’m not in the PC biz, so let’s see what Micron might give me for $3500. For $3514, I configured a Micron ClientPro DX5000. It has dual 800 MHz Pentium III CPUs (and an operating system that actually uses both CPUs!), 256 MB of RDRAM, a 7200 RPM 60 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM and CD-RW (Micron doesn’t offer DVD-R, but you can get it third-party if you must have one), a fabulous Sound Blaster Live! card, a 64 MB nVidia GeForce 2 MX, and in keeping with Apple tradition, no monitor. I skipped the modem because Micron lets me do that. If you must have a modem and stay under budget, you can throttle back to dual 766 MHz CPUs and add a 56K modem for $79. The computer also includes Intel 10/100 Ethernet, Windows 2000, and Office 2000.

And you can have it next week, if not sooner.

I went back to try to configure a 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon-based system, and I couldn’t get it over $2500. So just figure you can get a machine with about the same specs, plus a 19-inch monitor and a bunch more memory.

Cut-throat competition in PC land means you get a whole lot more bang for your buck with a PC. And PC upgrades are cheap. A Mac upgrade typically costs $400. With PCs you can often just replace a CPU for one or two hundred bucks down the road. And switching out a motherboard is no ordeal–they’re pretty much standardized at this point, and PC motherboards are cheap. No matter what you want, you’re looking at $100-$150. Apple makes it really hard to get motherboard upgrades before the machines are obsolete.

It’s no surprise at all to me that the Mac OS is now the third most-common OS on the desktop (fourth if you count Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 as separate platforms), behind Microsoft’s offerings and Linux. The hardware is more powerful (don’t talk to me about the Pentium 4–we all know it’s a dog, that’s why only one percent of us are buying it), if only by brute force, and it’s cheaper to buy and far cheaper to maintain.

Apple’s just gonna have to abandon the glitz and get their prices down. Or go back to multiple product lines–one glitzy line for people who like that kind of thing, and one back-to-basics line that uses standard ATX cases and costs $100 less off the top just because of it. Apple will never get its motherboard price down to Intel’s range, unless they can get Motorola to license the Alpha processor bus so they can use the same chipsets AMD uses. I seriously doubt they’ll do any of those things.

OS X will finally start to address the technical deficiencies, but an awful lot of Mac veterans aren’t happy with X.

Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to turn Apple around and make it the force it once was. I don’t think Steve Jobs has it in him, and I’m not sure the rest of the company does either, even if they were to get new leadership overnight. (There’s pressure to bring back the legendary Steve Wozniak, the mastermind behind the Apple II who made Apple great in the 1970s and 1980s.)

I don’t think they’ll turn around because I don’t think they care. They’ll probably always exist as a niche player, selling high-priced overdesigned machines to people who like that sort of thing, just as Jaguar exists as a niche player, selling high-priced swanky cars to people who like that sort of thing. And I think the company as a whole realizes that and is content with it. But Jaguar’s not an independent company anymore, nor is it a dominant force in the auto industry. I think the same fate is waiting for Apple.

Mailbag:

My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive