What would you do about Microsoft?

Posted 19 Mar 2002 at 02:09 UTC by rlk Share This

The entire Microsoft is focusing on the wrong issue. Internet Explorer is more or less completely irrelevant; the real issue is business practices

Mad Dog Ballmer and Billgatis of Borg must be laughing all the way to the bank. Not only have they possibly gotten off scot-free; they've managed to dictate the terms such that even if they lose, they win. Why? Because the trial focused on all the wrong issues.

Microsoft's predatory behavior has almost nothing to do with Internet Explorer, save the little matter of apparently trying to carve up the market with Netscape. I think Microsoft was actually completely justified in putting Internet Explorer into Windows. It wasn't too hard of a guess even in 1994 that web access would become a commodity, just like file systems and network access in general. I'm not sorry that web access doesn't require paying someone for an add-on; it's simply part of the basics that everyone has a right to expect (is it really reasonable that everyone buying a computer should have to shell out hundreds of dollars for utilities that do things that everyone needs?).

Of course Microsoft has a right to innovate. So does everyone else. And that's where the problem really starts -- Microsoft denies, through an interlocking web of licenses, installation agreements, and what have you, anyone else's (at least, anyone else who uses Microsoft's products) right to innovate. Some of the examples:

  • Per-system IHV licensing. This one's rather obvious; requiring payment to Microsoft for all computers shipped, not just all copies of Windows, is a fairly obvious way of dis-incentivizing vendors from installing someone else's OS. It certainly very effectively hurt OS/2, for example. It can't attack Linux that way, because Linux doesn't require payment of license fees. But that leads to

  • Prohibition of dual boot systems. As described in this Byte article, entitled "He Who Controls the Bootloader", Microsoft's pre-installation agreement (with system vendors) does not allow vendors to offer multi-boot options; if a system offers to boot into Windows, it must not offer to boot into anything else. That may be why Be was unable to get vendors to pre-load its OS, even if they offered it free of charge. Unfortunately, the Justice Department didn't allow Jean-Louis Gassee to testify on this at trial, and Jackson's findings of fact barely mentioned this.

  • Microsoft also prohibits the use of VNC (or any other third-party remote access software) with Windows XP.

Now, who's talking innovation? Perhaps per-system licensing simplifies calculation of royalties, although I rather doubt it. But the only possible reason for the other two listed items is to block competition. They do nothing to enhance the end-user experience, or encourage third-party innovation, or otherwise serve anybody but Microsoft. That's what any reasonable outcome has to attack.

Microsoft wants innovation, as executive after executive wants? Fine, let them have innovation! If they want an innovative, thriving software community, they can hardly object to any of these:

  • Vendors may not be prohibited, or disincentivized, from installing additional operating systems on computers they ship. No more prohibition of dual-boot systems.

  • Vendors must be allowed to make more than superficial changes to Windows installations. As long as they pay Microsoft for each copy of Windows shipped, they should be allowed to do anything they please -- add or remove icons on the desktop, add applications, remove components, change the shell. The only caveat is that if they do more than a certain specified set of actions (such as adding or removing icons, or adding applications -- on a non-discriminatory basis) Microsoft will not provide end-user support; the vendor must do so itself. System vendors should be just as free to innovate, no?

  • Microsoft must supply to the general public the specifications for all API's (or network programming interfaces) provided to their applications division, with no strings attached (other than RAND royalties for explicit use of components that are not part of the base OS). That means no favoring Office, or favoring vendors who agree not to write applications for competing operating systems.

  • Microsoft must provide 6 months advance notice on any API changes. This is likely to be thorny; Microsoft coders aren't perfect, and might unintentionally introduce bugs. Decisions about bugs would be made by a team with a majority of non-Microsoft employees.

  • Microsoft may not license software under terms discriminating against use with non-Microsoft software, or against particular uses of the software.

In addition, I would add the following strictly business remedies:

  • Microsoft must publish its price list, and may not offer discounts (or require penalties) beyond reasonable volume discounts applied either to the volume of each individually priced component sold or to the total list-price dollar volume of sales. It must offer the same terms to all comers, whether for internal IT users or system vendors, and these terms may not be conditioned upon any other legal behavior (e. g. Microsoft may not retaliate against users of non-Microsoft software, but it may refuse to sell to anyone who has been convicted of copyright violation of Microsoft software). Any volume discount must be based on the actual volume of software sold.

    In addition, each broken-out component may not also be sold bundled at a discount (other than the overall volume discount). So Microsoft couldn't offer Windows for $100, Office for $150, and Windows+Office for $150.

  • Microsoft may not enter into agreements requiring payment for unused Microsoft software (per-system pricing).

  • Microsoft must license all patents on a RAND basis.

Note that this says nothing at all about what Microsoft chooses to bundle with the operating system (every major Linux distribution bundles far more software than Microsoft would ever dream of bundling), or how many versions of Windows Microsoft is and is not allowed to ship, or how many new and confusing API's they can build into their software. Their right to technical innovation is unimpeded. Microsoft can ship whatever it likes and the market will bear; they just can't tell anybody else what to do with it (beyond outright copyright infringement).

Considering that I've spent all of 30 minutes on this, there are doubtless holes big enough to drive a truck through. I do think, though, that this approach comes a lot closer to attacking the real problem, while exposing the smokescreen of "innovation" that Microsoft likes to prattle on about.

The real issue: mindshare, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 04:47 UTC by tk » (Observer)

This is not the first time someone has tried to `expose' the evils that Microsoft has done. In the heydays of the open source movement, Eric Raymond publicized his annotated version of the Halloween documents. A few recent Advogato articles -- 440, 425, and probably some more -- have also dwelt on the subject of Microsoft.

Still, zillions of people and organizations continue to jump the Microsoft bandwagon, despite the fact that these evils are widely known, and that someone who really cares will be able to work around them. To put it briefly: mindshare. In the words of Neal Stephenson in "In the Beginning was the Command Line":

But possession of this psychological high ground is different from a monopoly in any normal sense of that word, because here the dominance has nothing to do with technical performance or price. The old robber-baron monopolies were monopolies because they physically controlled means of production and/or distribution. But in the software business, the means of production is hackers typing code, and the means of distribution is the Internet, and no one is claiming that Microsoft controls those.

Here, instead, the dominance is inside the minds of people who buy software. Microsoft has power because people believe it does. This power is very real. It makes lots of money. [...]

But this is not the sort of power that fits any normal definition of the word "monopoly," and it's not amenable to a legal fix. The courts may order Microsoft to do things differently. They might even split the company up. But they can't really do anything about a mindshare monopoly, short of taking every man, woman, and child in the developed world and subjecting them to a lengthy brainwashing procedure.

Eliminate software copyright, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 06:02 UTC by mslicker » (Journeyer)

This is a solution. Microsoft nor any other corporation would have any motivation to create this immoral software in the first place. Free software provides ample evidence that software production would not cease with the elimination of copyright. In fact, it would most likely flourish.

I am certain, however, that the government does not want a solution, but only the appearance of enforcing the law.

IE more or less irrelevant?, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 06:18 UTC by cpw » (Apprentice)

IE is far from irrelevant. At Netscape/Mozilla's current level of weakness, Microsoft is uncomfortably close to dictating Web client behavior to the point that one licenses IE or plays catchup forever.

Web developers have demonstrated time and time again that they'll happily give up 10% of the audience to avoid client-independant design, and that 10% can still be us.

They Rule, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 06:34 UTC by nymia » (Master)

It is a given fact, these types of companies rule. See http://www.theyrule.net/ for more details. They already have a very strong network established high and low they can choose to elbow or politely go their way into any areas they wish to.

There will be instances and places where tools coming from these companies are necessary, simple because they are necessary, no good or evil meaning can be drawn from it though. It is simply there.

On the other hand, I am so grateful FSF and OS tools are getting better. Hoping that someday these tools will become widespread. Until that say arrives, guess I will just have to be contented with the available tools.

If IE can't be removed from Windows, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 17:19 UTC by sej » (Master)

how come I use it everyday on a Macintosh? Were the "best and brightest" programmers in the world really dumb enough to embed web-browser GUI code in the networking libraries?

I believe forced unbundling of everything outside of the kernel (i.e. anything that can be ported to the Macintosh), and full disclosure of API's. Their lawbreaking with regards to extending their OS monopoly must not be repeated.

Microsoft Mac stuff is entirely different, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 21:50 UTC by Ilan » (Master)

sej, the mac unit at microsoft is given almost complete autonomy to do as they see fit, which is why IE for macintosh had very good CSS compliance (the mac unit *is* l microsoft's best and brightest. They are mac programmers, not Windows programmers). The stuff they turn out is an entirely seperate codebase from Microsoft's windows stuff. At one time, Microsoft did try to do the cross-platform thing and have a single c++ bunch of code for Office that would compile on both Windows and MacOS. Unfortunately microsoft did not make their mac ports of office very mac like from an interface standpoint and there was little optimization for performance. This lead to pieces of crap like Microsoft Word 6, which many long time mac enthusiasts regard with particular ire. After the Word 6 debacle, the mac unit started over from scratch and created a new MS office for macs (Office 98).

Aside from this interesting historical anecdote, I'll give a couple of things I think would be just solutions:

  1. The U.S. government can use their buying power to curb microsoft, as they are the largest organization on the planet and the largest consumer of software. They could drop all the legal proceedings against microsoft right now and simply move away from their products, and this would hurt Microsoft far more than any legal ruling ever could. And it wouldn't involve any more messy legal rangling. The U.S. government should also start hiring all the out-of-work programmers to write programs for the government that are to be released as open source (if my tax dollars pay for people to code, I think I should have access to it). The government spending $2 billion to develop it's own industrial grade word processor will still be cheaper than all those licenses they will buy for Word. For me, the greater travesty of justice is not that Microsoft's actions have been ignored by the government, but that they have been so very well protected from market forces by the way my government buys things.
  2. Microsoft must open up the specifications for every single file format their programs produce to the public.
  3. Likewise, Microsoft will not be allowed to patent any file format for the next five years. Also, there should be laws passed stating that anyone who reverse engineers a file format (from any company) for purposes of interoperability cannot be sued. If the government wants to spur on competition, they need to prevent silliness like the AFS streaming media patent enforcement that gave VirtualDub so much trouble.

Is the same true for Office for Mac OS X?, posted 19 Mar 2002 at 23:06 UTC by sej » (Master)

Is the same true for Office for Mac OS X? That is, are they completely separate codebases, developed by completely separate teams? And if this is so (for either IE or Office), I wonder how hard would it be for MS to back-port their portable apps to a newly restrained Windows?

Some things.., posted 20 Mar 2002 at 22:04 UTC by Mulad » (Apprentice)

I like the first two below the best, but maybe they should be combined with others.

Microsoft illegally gained and kept market share. They made a lot of money doing so, and I'd suggest fining the company for doing it. I'd suggest an amount that would flush their bank accounts, but I guess there's already a class-action suit or two that might do that, too.

Another possibility would be to prevent Microsoft from merging/acquiring other companies, or entering into other technology deals that would let MS `innovate' by buying out the competition. Set it for a period of five years or something relatively short.

Microsoft should publish file formats and APIs. This may be difficult to accomplish properly, but many companies use `chinese walls' for this sort of thing.

Microsoft should not be allowed to have a presence in the many areas it does now. The company should be forced to drop its ISP business, or its hardware business. Possibly some portion of the software it writes as well, or by itself..

mslicker + copyright, posted 21 Mar 2002 at 07:18 UTC by jdub » (Master)

mslicker: Ah, dude, Free Software relies on the existence of copyright. No copyright, no Free Software. You're using the wrong terminology.

copyright, posted 21 Mar 2002 at 14:36 UTC by mslicker » (Journeyer)

Perhaps I meant "free software" wrather that "Free Software". I don't know the signifigance of the caps. Free software does not depend on copyright, public domain software, for instance, does no use copyright.

The GPL, which relies on copyright the most, it actually a clever attack on copyright, hence the term "copyleft".

The main focus of the court action is to open development of middleware on Microsoft Windows. I personally have absolutely no interest in running Microsoft software, I have no intention of developing middleware for Microsoft Windows. I don't care if Microsoft develops the most draconian software in existence, as long this does not impeed the development or use of free software.

A lot of the mesages I see here, are along these lines. What mesures can we take to put free software on equal footing. These are pure fanstasy! Realise, that the government has no intetion of reducing Microsoft's monopoly. This leads me directly to copyright, this is Microsoft's true power source which is given by the same force which intends to limit Microsoft's power, the U.S. government. The most obvious solution to me is a reform in copyright law, or even the full scale elimination of copyright. This will truely put Microsoft on equal footing and establish true competition in software production.

Re: copyright, posted 21 Mar 2002 at 17:20 UTC by tk » (Observer)

mslicker: It's easy to say "just eliminate copyright", but I don't think it'll really increase competition in software production -- it may well dampen competition. Corporations will not have any motivation to produce `immoral' software, but `moral' free software coders too will have less motivation (though not none) to produce good quality (as in user-friendly / stable / robust / etc.) programs.

I think it'll be hard to eliminate Microsoft and maintain the current high standard of free software development, just by removing copyright.

proprietary influence, posted 21 Mar 2002 at 22:33 UTC by mslicker » (Journeyer)

<person>tk,</person> Do you have any examples of proprietary software that spured positive developments in free software?

I can mostly find only negative influences. To name a few: propreitary file formats. Fadish development methods and languages, and over standardization leading to the current code bloat. The "user friendly" interfaces Gnome, KDE copied from windows offer no improvements and much bloat to more basic free user interfaces that proceded them.

Perhaps some exceptions, the gimp copied from Adobe photoshop is genuinely useful. GNU copied from Unix is useful as a multiple-user system and server, although unecessary as a single user interface.

My use of the word immoral is impresise. Concretely the software I oppose is, although not limited to, that which is designed to control the user for the purpose of continual extraction of profit.

Re: proprietary influence, posted 22 Mar 2002 at 01:15 UTC by tk » (Observer)

The `influence' that proprietary software comes in the form of competition: the presence of `evil emperors' is itself one driving force for developers to churn out better free software programs. (Not to say that there are no other driving forces, though.)

This is not to say that I believe we need to keep Microsoft around, but rather that the way to break Microsoft is not through legal measures.

Re: proprietary influence, posted 22 Mar 2002 at 20:48 UTC by mslicker » (Journeyer)

Agreed, I prefer solutions from the bottom up as well.

microsoft is good _and_ bad., posted 24 Mar 2002 at 20:58 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

i covered some of these points in my 1hr 50min talk at sslug last month. sslug.mmmanager.org.

microsoft has developed some very, very, very good software. if you don't believe me, try to look for alternatives to nt domains (there aren't any) and alternatives for exchange with the same functionality (there aren't any) and try to look for an OS with the same level of integration of all software written (there aren't any).

also, as i informed eric at sslug, the halloween documents only outline a tiny part of quite how drastically bad the situation is for people wishing to catch up.

the protocols implemented in NT domains are FIVE LAYERS DEEP. each LAYER will take at least 18 months to implement. and because it's a client/server architecture, you _can't even begin to test it properly until you have all the layers!_

they also have, on top of that, some highly restrictive business practices, which are justified in that they wish to rightfully protect what they have created and spent billions investing in. and to some extent, i agree with them [that they have created some extraordinary software and stuff, and therefore have a right to protect it].

i just don't like the consequences, that's all. and i _particularly_ don't like the way that other people and companies don't get a look-in AT ALL.

yes, you're absolutely right: the US dept of Justice made themselves look [probably deliberately, if you're asking me] totally ridiculous, and out of either having been paid off somehow or by simply not getting the right advice, i'm not sure which, they fucked up, big-time.

the european union laws on copyright are about the right answer.

these laws DELIBERATELY exclude interfaces from copyright protection.

these laws DELIBERATELY exclude copyright protection on interfaces ESPECIALLY if the company that created them does not publish them, and allows reverse-engineering "where the information is not available by any other means".

the list of exceptions to copyright protection, "whereas" clauses, are quite cool.

basically, what needs to be done is to go after, full scale, all interfaces behind and between every microsoft program ever made.

it's been fifteen physical years so far.

the gap is only going to get bigger.

clock's ticking...

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