PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Is XP worth the effort?
February 2002 

The MS anti-trust case is starting to feel a bit like the "Irish Question". It drags on interminably with occasional flurries of activity, but mostly goes nowhere. However, a cartel of vitamin producers have just been fined £500m by the EC for controlling almost the entire world market in vitamins; and now prices have come down. Letís try and work out what MS is doing that isn't controlling an entire world market, and fixing prices.

I started "thinking aloud" about the "Microsoft Question" many, many issues ago - whilst I was still working with a US software business called Quarterdeck; one of the innovators in PC software that has subsequently been sucked into Symantec in the grand industry consolidation. At the time, I confess I didn't really think I was being particularly perceptive, and was mostly expressing surprise that anyone should be surprised that Microsoft was being accused of predatory practises based on its obvious monopoly - by any definition of that word. After all, around that time the UK and Eu monopoly regulators were getting twitchy about businesses with effective control of 25% of a marketplace ...and Microsoft openly boasted having better than 90% control of the desktop personal computing market.

The bit that really determined my position on this matter was when industry figures buttonholed me at shows and other events, and asked if I was not "worried" that I was making a public expression of my concern about Microsoft. The implication being that I was about to wake up with a gory horseís head on the pillow next to me. Well, I have never been one to know what's good for me in terms of diplomacy and denial, so this made me all the more determined to examine the issues being shirked by the more discreet and self-interested of my colleagues.

I even had lunch encounters with various MS PR people to try and point out to them that their paymasters were setting themselves for a huge fall by openly boasting of their omnipotence in the marketplace, but they just kept taking the fees and spinning the company line. It was bizarre how programmed these folks seem to be, I wish I had been able to check behind their ears for signs of the implants.

LA-based Quarterdeck made their living from fixing the glaring deficiencies in MSDOS that made it crash, and incapable of running large programmes, so I suppose I had a vested interest in Microsoft remaining technically inept. Which it dutifully did for long enough for Quarterdeck to go public, and allow the founders to get rich. However, Quarterdeck also looked ahead to the day when even Microsoft was going to fix the bugs that helped Quarterdeck's products sell, and they came up with a software platform called DesqView/X. This was an implementation of the Unix X Windows mouse/windows multitasking environment that companies like Sun and IBM had been struggling to get going on massive lumps of Unix ironware that cost £10k+ (even in those days). The difference was that Quarterdeck managed the trick on a "regular" MSDOS PC with 2-4MByte of memory. Ironically, it's only just about now - 7 years later - that Windows XP and Mac OS/X are beginning to achieve the same level of functionality and resilience in their base architecture.

However, at the time Microsoft launched Windows 3 (everyone including Microsoft accepted that previous Windows editions were prototypes) Quarterdeck was in no shape to attempt to compete with the Microsoft for a very simple and poignant reason. And this wasn't just chasm between the resources of tiny Quarterdeck and massive Microsoft, it was the fact the Microsoft was able to control the applications development environment for Windows because it had cornered as many software developers as it could to develop applications that ran under this operating environment.

Now, let's not forget the three incumbent monopolies in DOS application software - Lotus with the 123 spreadsheet, Ashton Tate with the dBase database software, and WordPerfect with its quirky but widely-used word-processing software, who had in turn dethroned Micropro's once omnipotent WordStar word-processing software. Each of the Big Three applications had a completely incompatible user interface, and the developers of the software were completely disinterested in helping their respective users interoperate, instead, two of them attempted to bolt feeble complementary products onto their solid core offering, and try and maintain a "family" resemblance in the process.

Ashton Tate with Framework, Lotus with Symphony and WordPerfect produced unlovely and dysfunctional "suite" products that were huge, cumbersome, counterintuitive, and where the only lessons learned were that the companies should stick to their core competence. They clearly should have agreed between themselves to have a 3-way share of the Windows market or the inevitable would happen. And so the inevitable has happened, and when looking at early Windows they were unnerved that if they decided to adopt the uniform Windows approach where the same basic functions apply to every application, that they would give up competitive advantage. They were dead right; and the companies and products that once ruled the desktop, are also dead.

They then left the early Windows field open to a scramble amongst the second division software developers who knew that they would never be able to take on one of the Big Three on the DOS platform, but they might just steal a march and set the new standard on the new Windows platform. Especially since they didn't have to think too hard about the user interface, as that was pretty much handed down on tablets of stone from the Beast of Redmond. So guess what? Microsoft couldn't believe its luck. It had bought in Excel to provide some early example of applications support for Windows - and then just sat back and allowed the early windows developers to bust their guts, and produce that ranges products that were inevitably going to all start to look and feel the same, within the chosen Microsoft GUI architecture. And then MS either bought the companies or talent involved, and voila, MS Office swept the board.

Oh yes, the MS GUI was almost indistinguishable from the Unix X Windows GUI called, Motif. There's a whole long story about how Unix and the UIs are interchangeable and easily customisable - but that's for another time when we have accepted that Linux is the only way to derail Microsoft. After all, MS has given the US world domination in IT? Would you seriously expect the US government to help derail this..?

I believe that the vociferous MS detractors such as Sun and Oracle are only really bitching because the monopoly is not theirs. Either of those two would probably be even more unpleasant with the sort of stranglehold enjoyed by Gates; and Netscape deserves no sympathy either. Those of us who recall trying to deal with NetScape when it was still "on the up" can only recall the most arrogant and big-headed collection of nonentities ever assembled in the name of technology.

The suggested remedy proposed by the US government is a complete farce; the way to clip the wings of this unseemly behemoth is actually a lot simpler than anyone realises - all that is required is the faithful replication of the MS Office suite on the Linux operating system. So if the Eu regulators had any sense of irony, here is simplest and most elegant way to fix it:

Before Microsoft is allowed to bank a penny more revenue in Europe, it must make the entire Office XP suite available to run on Linux - complete with source code. And if MS gripes about being forced to give away the family silver, then weíll remind it how it "borrowed" the family silver of so many others that went out of business along the way, that we have lost count.

With open source, there would be no hiding places for those nasty little spying features that MS is unable to restrain itself from inserting (possibly at the behest of the NSA); and then the marketing mix can once again include an element of "service to users" that means that there is once again an incentive to produce solutions that work reliably.

Where the choice is MS Office or MS Office, then you canít exactly choose the one with fewer bugs and better support, can you..? Ironically, if MS graciously accepted the challenge and produced a Linux OS release, and a Linux version of Office, it could probably defuse most of the criticism ...and own an even bigger overall marketplace! But don't hold your breath.