What is a game cartridge?

What is a game cartridge?

What is a game cartridge? If you’re asking, you must not have grown up in the 1980s. But that’s OK. We’re happy to share our generation’s fun with you.

A game cartridge is a plastic case containing a circuit board, a connector, and a ROM chip. CDs and DVDs ultimately displaced them because they offered higher capacity at a lower cost. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the only lasers our game consoles had were the ones they drew on the screens in games about aliens. We liked our cartridges, even if we called them tapes sometimes.

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Estate sale tips for buyers

I talked earlier this week about garage sales, but what about estate sale tips for buyers? The overall strategy is similar, but there are definitely tips that apply specifically to estate sales. Simply put, shopping at estate sales can save you thousands of dollars if you do it right.

So what is an estate sale? Imagine an oversized garage sale. Essentially, the family is liquidating everything in the house. Of course you find a lot of the same things you’d find at a garage sale, but at a good estate sale, there will be high-dollar items too.

So, without further ado, here are my 18 hard-won estate sale tips for buyers.

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The trouble with Dell

Note: I wrote this in mid-2010 and, for whatever reason, never posted it. I found it this week. Although the information in it is no longer fresh and new, it’s still useful, so for that reason, I’m posting it now.

Dell is standing on some shaky ground right now. Bill Snyder has a good summary of the problem.

In recent years, Dell computers have, shall I say, made me nervous. Some of it’s been concrete. Some of it’s just been touchy-feely. Now one of those touchy-feely problems is more concrete. Read more

Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

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Tips for running a garage sale

On a forum I frequent, the discussion turned to garage sales, and some people shared some horror stories. As someone who visits a lot of garage sales, I’ve seen the ways people deal with some of the pitfalls. In the interest of encouraging garage sales, I’ll share my tips for running a garage sale.

tips for running a garage sale
Quick: can you spot the common (but very serious) error in this photo of a table at a garage sale? Keep reading and you’ll find the answer. This may be the most valuable of my tips for running a garage sale.

One problem is people showing up at 5 or 6 in the morning wanting to get in early. The best way to prevent this is to be vague about your address. Be specific enough that they can find it, but vague enough that they can’t find it early. What do I mean? Don’t say “2329 Jefferson” in your ad and streetcorner signs. Say “single-family sale, 23xx Jefferson.” Then, when you’re ready to open your sale, put a sign in your front yard and open your garage door. Last of all, have a helper go out and put some signs on nearby major intersections.

The early birds can still show up if they want, but they’ll have no choice but to sit in the car and wait for you, since they won’t even know for sure which house is having the sale. Only the people really, really serious about buying something will, and those are the people you want.

Lowballers are the other problem. I’ll admit, I’ve asked for discounts before when buying large quantities of stuff, but I don’t demand them. I see some people demanding discounts on everything, no matter how low the initial price is. Yes, I know that’s annoying. I’ve actually had people running sales ask me if I’m interested in the same thing they’re getting lowballed on, in hopes of selling it to me instead. Garage sale prices are already pennies on the dollar, but some people insist on squeezing out every last penny.

The best tactic is to lower your prices late in the sale, say, after 10 am. Advertise that prices will be 25% or 50% off at 10 am, and maybe knock something else off at 11 am. When a lowballer tries to play games with you, just say, “no discounts until 10 am.” They can come back then, assuming the item is still there. If they really want it, then they’ll pay your asking price.

Do be realistic about your prices, though. I once went to a sale, picked out 10 items (unmarked) and asked how much. I was expecting $10, maybe $20 at most, based on what I paid at other sales. She asked $60.

What did I do? I went through the pile again. It turned out half of it was stuff I could turn a small profit on at $6 each. Half of it was stuff I couldn’t sell for $6 myself. So I put those back. I reluctantly paid $30 for the other five. I honestly doubt anyone else expressed interest in what I put back. If it ever did sell, I’m sure she didn’t get $30 for it.

If you don’t know how to price something, visit a few sales yourself to get an idea what stuff goes for. Or at least visit your nearest thrift store and see what they charge for the kind of stuff you’ll be selling.

Leaving items unmarked and soliciting an offer encourages lowballers to offer 10 cents for things that ought to be priced a dollar. Or it leads to awkward exchanges like mine, where someone puts most of it back.

Do keep in mind a significant number of people who come to your sale are looking for things to re-sell. They may have a booth at a flea market or antique mall, they may sell on eBay, or something else. You’ll have some bargain hunters and curious neighbors, but most likely the majority will be resellers. Their profit margin isn’t your main concern. But the general rule of reselling is that 3x markup is the minimum that works. If an item sells on eBay for $10, the most you’re going to get from a reseller is about $3. The reason is because eBay is going to take $1.50 in commissions. The government is going to take another $1.50 or so in taxes. So the seller spends $3 to make $3-$4. But of course the seller would rather spend $1, sell for $10, and make $5-$6.

I’ve seen old Marx train cars priced at $50 at garage sales because the seller claimed he saw one just like it go for $100 on eBay. In the cases I’m thinking of, it’s always been a very common car worth no more than $20, so I know the seller was either lying or mistaken. If you think you have something really special, my advice is to attempt to sell it on eBay instead. You’re not going to get eBay prices at a garage sale. Essentially, as a garage sale operator, you’re a wholesaler.

If you don’t want to hassle with eBay, take a name and number from anyone who shows interest.

One tactic I see sometimes (and my family used) is to advertise a sale as a moving sale instead of a yard or garage sale, in order to get better prices. Advertising a moving sale can allow you to get better prices for your highest-end stuff, like furniture or nice electronics or perhaps name-brand clothes in nice condition. But things like used toys and VHS tapes sell for about the same price no matter what you call the sale.

Some people post phone numbers in the ad. Unless the ad runs the same day as the sale, this is a mistake. It’s just asking people to call you and want to see your stuff early. I admit I’ve done it myself. There have been a couple of times that I couldn’t find a sale, the ad had a number, and I called for directions and ended up buying a lot of stuff. But if you don’t want people calling you all hours of the day in advance, it’s probably not worth it. Putting a nearby landmark in your ad is just as effective and saves you the phone calls.

Finally, I’ve seen people take out ads a week or two in advance of the sale. I don’t see the point. Most circuit regulars don’t plan beyond the upcoming Saturday. So placing an ad early just forces you to do a lot of explaining to disappointed people that the sale is next week. The best day to advertise is the Friday before. The day of the sale is often too late, as many people have already made their plans. An ad in Saturday’s newspaper can draw in people who change their plans on Saturday morning, or people who plan spontaneously. But if you’re paying for the ad, Friday is best. If you advertise on Craigslist, run your ad early in the week and refresh it closer to Friday.

Did you catch the mistake in the photo at the top? Arguably there are two, but one of them is worse than the other. Organizing the stuff into logical groups would help it to sell better. The toy cars, the tools, and the electronics ought to all be together, rather than making it look like someone dumped a box of random stuff onto the table.

But the bigger problem is no price tags. The box of miniature light bulbs in the upper right would easily sell for $10 online. Mark it at $3, and it will sell. Unmarked, don’t be surprised if someone offers 10 cents.

And those are my tips for running a garage sale. I hope they help you have a less frustrating, more successful sale.

The kind of guy who could save America

I went to several estate sales today (it’s what I do on Saturdays, after all), but one was memorable. Some sales just jump out at you, and this one had evil genius/mad scientist written all over it.The estate belonged to a man named Carl. From what I could gather, Carl was Catholic, diabetic, and from my wife’s comments, must not have been married at the time he died. She mostly stayed upstairs while I rollicked around in the basement, which was tinkerer’s heaven.

“This guy was just like you!” my wife marveled when I resurfaced once. Well, she’s half right. I very much would have liked Carl. And yes, Carl liked computers and models and trains and didn’t see any point in buying anything he could make himself. But Carl’s knowledge of physics and other sciences went far, far beyond mine, as did his knowledge of electronics. I pulled out box after box after box of electronic components. Some of the stuff was pretty new, and some of it obviously dated to the early 1970s, if not earlier. It pains me to think most of that stuff is going to get thrown away, but there’s no sense in me buying it, even for pennies on the dollar, when I don’t know what it is, let alone what to do with it.

It’s entirely possible that Carl and I did cross paths, sort of. In the 1980s and early 1990s, BBSing was a common hobby among people who enjoyed electronics, amateur radio, and computers. People exactly like Carl. For that matter, it’s possible he might not have just dialed into BBSs, he fit the stereotype of a BBS operator like a hand in a glove. Who knows, maybe Carl ran a BBS I used to call.

Digging around Carl’s work area, I found lots of different things. I bought some moldmaking supplies and casting resin, Bondo body filler, and some tools. Carl took care of his tools. But on his workbench, I found a single file laying there that still had metal shavings on it. Perhaps Carl died before he was finished with it and cleaned it. I found a brush, cleaned off the file, and could picture Carl looking down, nodding approval. I bought the file and the brush. Both were better than the ones I owned previously.

Unfortunately, Carl is the type of person our society has been trained to fear, rather than respect, especially during this decade. I found plenty of literature that Homeland Security wouldn’t approve of. Instructions for making Tesla coils, and lots of instructions for making things that go boom in the back yard. I also found literature that dealt with alternative car fuels, converting cars to electric power, and generating your own electricity.

He was also obviously very interested in robotics and using computers to control things. In a spare bedroom, I found a pile of old Timex Sinclair 1000 computers and peripherals. He added I/O ports to most of them, and hacked another one to use a Texas Instruments keyboard instead of the cheap membrane keyboard that came with it. He must have used that Sinclair for programming. Another spare bedroom had a couple of barely started robotics projects.

Unfortunately, many people look at people like Carl, and are too quick to label him a deviant, or worse yet, a terrorist. The label is unfair. In fact, during natural disasters, amateur radio operators often are the people with the best information early, giving invaluable information to relief workers.

But the most important thing is the tendency not to think within the boundaries that “normal” people usually confine themselves to. Among his things, I found a book titled How to Patent Your Ideas.

Now I don’t know what kind of ideas he had floating in his head. As far as I can tell, he never published any of them (I have his last name, and I searched out of curiosity).

But with all this talk today about energy independence, I think it’s great that some guy in Crestwood, Missouri was thinking along those lines. I don’t know if any of those thoughts turned into anything tangible or not. But frankly, that kind of work is important–much more so than the tinkering I’m doing in my basement, which so far has resulted only in some wooden toys for my son to play with, and metal toys for me.

We need some new ideas, rather than just buying everything from abroad. I know there are still people like Carl out there, but I hope they aren’t a dying breed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden desire to go see what I can do with some of the tools I bought from Carl’s workbench.

Nickel and dime your way to prosperity

An old friend and I have been talking a lot about debt elimination these past few weeks. With any luck, both of us will be completely debt-free by age 45 at the very most, and probably sooner.

The trick is to dump as much money as possible into debt retirement. As recently as November, the interest on my Honda Civic was costing me $1.40 a day. Think what you could do with that $540 a year you’re paying in needless interest.

The challenge is finding the money to use to retire debt.Some of these tricks will only save you a few cents. You must get yourself over the it’s-only-25-cents mentality. That quarter can either work for you or against you. A quarter paid at the beginning of a 30-year mortgage saves you more than a dollar by the end of the loan. Can you find a safer way to quadruple your money? I doubt it.

If and when you have no debt, dump those pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters into an index fund. An index fund just buys you the same stocks that are in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or some other index. Historically, these funds double in value every seven years. Great Depression, Schmeat Schmepression. Dump a quarter into an index fund and don’t touch the investment, and in 28 years, it’s $4.

So let’s find some creative ways to get some quarters.

1. Pay your bills online. This potentially does more than save you the 37 cents in postage. My gas and electric companies both have arrangements with checkfree.com to allow online payments free of charge. I was invariably late in paying them, which subjected me to interest payments. The other nice thing about Checkfree is that it schedules the payment for the due date. So if by chance you have an interest-bearing checking account, that money can work for you until the last possible day. You probably won’t save more than a couple of bucks a month this way, but that’s $25 over the course of a year. If someone offered you $25 without any strings attached, I doubt you’d turn it down.

2. Make car and mortgage payments as soon as possible. I may be showing my ignorance here, but interest paid to me on most accounts I’ve had is calculated monthly. Interest on my car is calculated daily. So, making that payment as soon as my paycheck shows up in my checking account reduces the principle, thus reducing my interest payments by a few pennies a few days early. It’s only pennies? I’d rather they be my pennies than Honda’s.

3. Use credit wisely. I remember one day a few years ago, I was at the grocery store and instead of pulling out my debit card, I pulled out a credit card accidentally. I thought how awful it would be to have to pay for life’s necessities on credit.

But if you’re disciplined, and you have a credit card with rewards–and we should be talking cash here, not merchandise–then it makes sense to pay for life’s necessities on credit. Take a look at my Discover Card bill, and you’ll see the bulk of it is things like gasoline, groceries, my telephone bill, and $20 trips to Kmart, which means I was probably buying stuff like toothpaste and deodorant and other household necessities. I pay the balance in full every month, so the result is essentially some bank paying me to buy the things I’d need to buy anyway. This nets me about $80 a year. I never see a dime of it–I apply it directly to the card’s balance.

4. Buy a programmable thermostat. The cheapest programmable thermostats cost about $30. They can easily save you that much in a month. During my 8-hour workday, my thermostat only heats the house to 56 degrees in the winter time. It cools it to 82 in the summer. During waking hours and on weekends, it keeps the house at 70 degrees in the winter and 75 in the summer. During sleeping hours the temperature raises or lowers by 5 degrees depending on whether it’s summer or winter. I used to have $300 heating bills in the winter months. Now I have $175 bills. That’s still ridiculous, but it leaves me money to actually do something about it.

5. Cut out the sodas and snacks. I used to routinely spend $1.50-$2.00 a day at the vending machine and the cafeteria at work, buying coffee, soda, and snacks. Over a 240-workday year, well, do the math. The 34.5-ounce can of coffee in my fridge (it lasts longer when stored there) is marked 9-26, the date I bought it. I expect it will last me until the end of the month. So that can of coffee will last me five months. I buy the off brand, so I can sometimes get one of those cans for between $3 and $3.50. So my morning coffee costs me 2.3 cents. I quit drinking soda entirely and I pack a granola bar in my lunch. Over the course of the past year I am sure I’ve saved $300.

6. Pack your lunch. Lunch at a sit-down restaurant almost always costs you $7. Fast food usually costs at least $5. The cafeteria at work is usually $3-$4. Sometimes I pack leftovers that would otherwise get thrown away, so they’re essentially free. It’s fairly easy to pack a lunch for $2. Again, do the math over 240 days. Do you want to spend a house payment on lunch every year, or do you want to spend a car payment instead?

7. Eat out less. A couple of years ago I was dating a girl who had to eat out 3-4 times a week, at least. Usually it was places where I was lucky to get out for under $20. I always paid, of course. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have any money. But with a little creativity, it’s entirely possible to make dinner for two for $4. You can make a fairly impressive dinner for two for $10.

8. Shop the cheap stores. St. Louis has five different chains of grocery stores. At the top of the ladder is Dierbergs, followed by Schnucks. A third local chain, Shop ‘n’ Save, generally beats the Schnucks and Dierbergs prices by a few percent. But now I do most of my shopping at two stores that white-collar professionals rarely visit: Aldi and Save-a-Lot. In most cases the quality of the product is the same. But when I can get a loaf of bread for $.99 versus $1.59, the difference adds up quickly. For the things Aldi and Save-a-Lot don’t carry, I still go to Dierbergs, but I rarely spend more than $10 at Dierbergs now, unless they’re running a big sale on something.

8. Buy generics. A lot of people are afraid of generic products because they feel they might be getting ripped off. You’re actually a lot more likely to get taken with a costlier brand name. I’ve found the quality of most generics to be as good as the name brands. When it isn’t, I try a different generic the next time. Eventually I’ll find a generic that’s as good as the big name brand, and save a bundle. I’ll buy the name brands when they’re on sale, but aside from that, my pantry is full of generics and I don’t care who knows about it.

9. Don’t spend a dollar to get 14 cents. A common excuse for not paying down your house is that the interest is tax deductible. That may be, but you’re getting pennies on the dollar. My car payment was costing me $1.40 a day until I paid it way down.

It’s tax time. That means you have a piece of paper that tells you exactly how much interest you paid on your house last year. Are you paying $14 a day to inhabit a house you supposedly own? That tax deduction only reduces the net cost to $12. I can think of better things to do with $12, and I’ll bet you can too.

10. Don’t spend your windfall all at once. Are you getting a tax refund? Did you get a bonus? Have you been working a lot of overtime lately? It’s OK to reward yourself and/or your family. But don’t blow all of it indulging yourself. Spend 10 percent of it, tithe 10 percent of it, and use the rest to retire debt, and dream of the day when you have no mortgage payment and no car payment and every paycheck is a windfall.

11. Save your pennies. Coinstar, the makers of those change-converting machines in grocery stores, says the average household has $90 in loose change scattered about the house. A fairly painless way to save money is to dump your change into a jar at the end of the day, rather than spending it on frivolous things. At some point, convert the money into a more usable form, then apply the windfall rule to it.

12. Cascade your debt. I pay extra on my car every month. When the car is paid off, I’m going to start adding that amount to my mortgage payment every month, except in case of emergency. I estimate I can have my house paid off in about five years by doing this.

13. What will I have to show for this purchase? This is key. Before you spend even a quarter, consider what you will have to show for it by buying it. Just because you walk past a candy store in the mall doesn’t mean you have to go in and buy something. If you’re lucky, all it’ll do is rot your teeth and make you fat. You could have paid that quarter into your mortgage and turned it into a dollar.

Some purchases are unavoidable. In a couple of months, I’m going to need new tires. I can think of a million things I’d rather do with that money, but I need it. That’s OK. I’ll have it.

The trick isn’t to live in total self-denial, but to exercise restraint. Most of us live like millionaires, but the problem is that we’re spending our million dollars instead of letting it work hard so we don’t have to work as much. And it’s killing us.

The second-cheapest way to get household necessities

The topic at lunch at work turned to saving money around the house earlier this week, largely because one of my coworkers suddenly found himself with full responsibility for his two pre-teen nieces. The coworkers who are parents started talking about the best places to get good used clothes, the best places to get food cheap, and other stuff. Not being a parent, I just listened. I’m not at that stage in life.

I’m in a different stage of life, still a relatively new homeowner. Yesterday I paid a grand total of $5 for an ironing board and a stepladder, two things I’ve been surviving without. I’m about ready to quit going to the hardware store and to Kmart.The secret is estate sales.

Estate sales are usually crowded affairs, as people swoop in from all corners of the globe to cram themselves into tiny houses in search of things that are rare, things that are cheap, or best yet, rare and cheap.

I see two types at estate sales. The first is the well-to-do, who are there in hopes of securing antiques and collectibles for pennies on the dollar. The other is recent immigrants, who are generally there in search of inexpensive household necessities. They already know the secret.

The best time to go to estate sales is either really early or really late. If you get there early–it seems like people show up an hour early sometimes–you’ll get the best selection but you’ll pay top dollar. In some cases I’ve seen things priced at literally 10 times what they’re worth. In less extreme cases, I’ve seen tools priced the same as a new one at Sears.

Then again, yesterday I bought a pair of small pruning shears for 50 cents and a sharpening file for a quarter.

If you get there on the last day, reality has kicked in, the sucker prices have generally gone away, and dickering becomes the rule of the day. Prices drop by a factor of two or three, and the later it gets, the more willing they are to listen to prices.

If you’re shopping for household necessities, this is a good thing. The antique furniture dealers have no interest in ironing boards and laundry baskets and trash cans. Recent immigrants do, but chances are they already have those things. Stuff like this is often priced low to begin with, and it gets cheaper as time marches on because the chances of someone buying it are pretty low.

You can get household appliances cheap too. I saw a 20-inch Zenith TV marked at $50 yesterday. I know it works because they had it turned on. I’ll bet someone will get it for $20 today. I saw a washer and a dryer priced around $200 each yesterday. The washer was less than two years old. The dryer was a bit older but it was a Maytag. Those prices were decent, and could go way down if they sat long enough. If you’re willing to live without a warranty, you can save yourself a bundle. Two years ago I paid $900 for a washer and a fridge. A friend gave me a dryer. It looks like it could be 25 years old but it works and I was happy to save $250.

But yesterday I wasn’t looking for appliances. I wasn’t necessarily looking for household necessities either, but I’ve been needing a stepladder and a full-size ironing board. So when I spotted one marked at $4.50 and $6, respectively, I wasn’t going to pass them up. It was around noon, and it was a Friday-Saturday sale. They’d be closing up shop in an hour or two. Anything under $20 was automatically half price. I dragged the ironing board and the stepladder up to the checkout. “Five dollars is fine,” she said.

And it was fine with me too. I still remember the day when I went out to either Wal-Mart or Kmart (I try not to shop at Wal-Mart anymore but I did then), days before I moved out of my mom’s house for good, to buy household necessities. After spending more than $200 on things like trash cans and laundry baskets, there was still a lot of stuff I lacked.

If I’d known then what I know now, I probably could have gone to three sales, spent a grand total of 50 bucks, and ended up lacking a lot less.

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.

02/01/2001

I don’t like to do “this is what I did yesterday” messages but that’s all I’ve got. Mostly I re-imaged some Macs. I did get to put an HP optical drive in a Compaq Proliant server we bought used for pennies on the dollar from a failed dot-com. But no one had any drive rails. Luckily, I had a Compaq 386 sitting under my desk. I opened it up, pulled the 5.25″ drive, walked over to the Proliant, and it slid right in. Perfect. I unbolted the drive, bolted the rails to the optical drive (I had to find different screws), and put the drive right in. And the guy who normally handles the servers asked how I did it so fast. Hey, I did tech review on a book about PC hardware. I know how to work on these things… And I worked on far too many Compaqs my first two years of college. (And far too many IBMs my last two years of college.)

Hot tip: Compaq drive rails cost something like $30 from Compaq. Compaq 386s are free, when you can find them. Or they’re cheap. Or someone pays you 15 bucks to haul them away. Or, there’s eBay. I just found 12 people selling them there, with zero bids on them. Asking price: $4.99-$9.99.

I also parted out a Pentium-75 that no longer works. This is the only dead Micron PC I’ve seen, honestly. And I suspect the problem is the third-party memory in it (the memory there isn’t Micron, which tells me the original stuff was pilfered at some point). Since it’s useless, it’s either part it out and discard the stuff that can’t be used, or pay someone to haul it off. Well, I’m having a hard time getting my Soyo SY-7SBB motherboards running. Outside the case, they’re fine. Put them in one of my AT cases, and they don’t work. I suspect not enough grounding, or grounding in places it doesn’t want it. This Micron case is much more configurable than any of the AT cases I have, so it’ll help me solve the mystery. (I won’t go modifying my IBM PC/AT case until I figure out, with the Micron case’s help, where I need ground points. Then I’ll Dremel out the existing caseworks and put in spacers where I need them to be. Ah, the troubles I’ll go to for a chance to see someone’s face when they see something unexpected…

Last night after church, one of our seminary students was cleaning off his car. (We got some ice last night.) He had this dinky little plastic ice scraper that would probably fit in your shirt pocket. I was waiting for my car to warm up, noticed him struggling with that thing, so I pulled out my heavy-duty scraper, with its long metal handle and big brush, and walked over to his car. “I can tell you’re from Texas,” I said. Boom, boom, boom, and in 30 seconds I had all the remaining ice off his windshield. He watched me with huge eyes. I just laughed as I brushed off his windshield.

Heavy-duty ice scrapers are your friend. One day last week I had a half-inch layer of solid ice on my car. With this scraper, it still took me 10 minutes to clean it off. With a hand-size scraper, my only choice would have been to let the car run for 30 minutes with the defroster going full force.

And what’s this? I had 317 page reads at 3 p.m. yesterday. On a so-so DAY I get 317 reads. (I can get 600 on a good day; about 260 on a bad day.) That can’t be one person, because one person reading, if they spend two minutes per post, will get 30 in an hour. Maybe it was someone looking for something. I hope they found it. Or maybe a speed reader really really really likes my stuff.

And this from Gatermann. I got mail from a reader asking about getting a modem running under Linux. I noticed he used Southwestern Bell and suggested that was probably the problem, not his modem or Linux. I suggested he contact tech support and ask if Linux works. Gatermann piped in. They won’t even know what Linux is, he said. Remember, these are the people who couldn’t understand why they couldn’t ping me when I couldn’t get an IP address. (Yeah, I rolled my eyes too the first time Tom told me that story.)

But I suspect everyone there has heard of Linux. Heck, my ex-girlfriends know about Linux. The one I talked about taking me to the state capital and eating doughnuts on the steps (hey, if there are any Mizzou alumni out there and you know anything about this tradition, would you please e-mail me about it? Thanks in advance), one night we were sitting out there, and she brought up Linux. SHE did. At the time, I hated Linux because all I’d seen was Slackware. Another girl I dated briefly brought up Linux as much as she could because she knew I was writing a book about Linux at the time. Heck, people walk up to me at church and ask me if I know anything about Linux!

So Southwestern Bell employees have probably heard of Linux. But Tom’s right, they probably can’t say anything meaningful about it.

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