Saturday, April 01, 2000

read book now




BOOK Reviews


To contribute to this debate, Click here

For an old comment of mine that I think is stil relevant, look here.

read book now





It began with a message from Darnell Gadberry, the communications whiz who hosts this page and knows more about the technical insides of the web than I ever will:


Looks like a smoking gun to me.


The story can be found on the Web:




By Wendy Goldman Rohm

Red Herring Online

August 25, 1998

"We should surely crash the system ..."

These are the words which one Microsoft vice president, David Cole, wrote in a memo to other senior executives at Microsoft (MSFT) -- including Senior Vice President Brad Silverberg—about how to sabotage a competing operating system, DR DOS.

Mr. Cole’s memo is just part of the evidence the Justice Department has collected under subpoena in its effort to prove that Microsoft’s business practices are monopolistic and predatory. This evidence has never been made public before. Sources include those who distributed the messages, Microsoft insiders, and government sources.

I leave the rest for you to look up; I'd like to reprint the text here because it takes forever to download the actual page (or did for me) but copyright is copyright.

My reply to Darnell was:


It is and it isn’t. We had that beta here and I complained, and was told to ignore the messages; which I did, with no problems. The shipping version didn’t have the messages. I am a bit surprised they talk about what they could do, but in fact what they did do was nothing. Perhaps this was chatter before they talked to Gates?

It’s stupid, but illegal happens when you DO something not when you talk about it. I’ve ordered the book this comes from. Perhaps there is more in there.

And Eric said:


The thing that has always baffled me about this sort of thing is why Microsoft should be under any obligation to make any of their products compatible with anything else. It might be a good idea for overall business but I find it laughable that somebody with a DOS of their own believes they have a specific right to have Windows run over their product.

If Microsoft convinced a PC vendor to use a BIOS that clobbered other DOSes or stuff like GEM and GEOS that would be a different story. If the GEOS folks hadn’t been utter knuckleheads about building third party support it might be a different industry today.

Darnell's reply was:


You guys seem to be forgetting the central issue. Once you are a MONOPOLY - the rules for conduct in the marketplace are very different. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was designed to prevent anti-competetive behavior in the marketplace. Specifically, the kind of behavior that Microsoft has been engaged in since their inception.

- darnell

At which point I decided this was worth using as the basis of a discussion. To contribute send mail Subject=monopoly (Click here).


AND SO the debate begins:


Robert Bruce Thompson []

Hmm. I think people are bantering the term "monopoly" about rather carelessly. The defining characteristic of a monopoly is that someone who wants or needs a particular type of item has no choice but to buy it from a single source. That is clearly not the case with Microsoft. They do not even have a majority market share in computer software, let alone a monopoly. What they do have is large market share in a couple of market segments - desktop operating systems and personal productivity software.

The operative word is choice. We have any number of choices in desktop operating system software and applications. If I choose not to use Word, I can use WordPerfect, Ami Pro, or any of several other alternatives. If not Internet Explorer, then Navigator or Opera. If not Outlook, then Eudora, Pegasus, or any number of other mail clients and PIMs. Every application category in which Microsoft has a presence is populated by many alternative choices. Same thing with operating systems. In the room where I’m writing this, I have computers running BSDI Unix, Linux, and OS/2. I don’t have a Mac, but there is yet another viable alternative. The reason that Microsoft has become so overwhelmingly dominant in the desktop universe is not because other choices do not exist. The reason is that most people have freely chosen Microsoft operating systems and Microsoft applications.

I also get tired of hearing the old red herring about having no choice but to buy Microsoft software when buying a computer. It’s true that Dell, Gateway, Micron, IBM, Compaq, and most other "name brand" vendors bundle Microsoft operating systems and applications software. So what? They made those deals voluntarily because they perceived that by doing so they were adding value for their customers and ensuring that they could continue to compete with other vendors who were doing the same. The mere fact that you can’t buy a Gateway or Dell computer without also buying Microsoft software doesn’t mean you have no choice. Anyone who wants a PC without bundled Microsoft software can get one easily. It won’t be a Gateway or Dell, but again, so what? Someone who chooses to buy a brand of computer that comes with bundled Microsoft software is simultaneously making the free choice to buy that bundled software. If they don’t want to do that, many alternatives exist.

Ultimately, none of those bundling deals would exist if the vast majority of their customers didn’t want them. I remember the days not too long past when people had to go out and buy individual applications like WordPerfect and Lotus for $500 each or so. Microsoft bundles better software at a much lower price. That’s not the behavior of a monopolist.

Robert Bruce Thompson

And Still More


Dr. Pournelle,

Yet more about MS having shady code in their beta versions— this story being out in, yes!, MS-NBC.

"Let not your right hand know what the left hand doeth," I guess...

The story is at:


Highlights of the story:

"The lawsuit alleges that part of Microsoft’s campaign against DR-DOS was to hide a bug inside a test version of Windows, which was sent in 1991 to thousands of developers working on software that would run on Windows and to nearly every PC maker in the world. Many of these companies were then considering whether to use DR-DOS, and the bug-triggered whenever it encountered DR-DOS-sowed doubt that it was compatible, the suit charges.

"At the time, the bug was a mystery in the software industry. It was encrypted—the only piece of encrypted code in Windows—so that it was almost impossible to identify. But the author couldn’t resist signing his work, leaving one string of letters unencrypted, and the bug became known among puzzled software engineers outside Microsoft as the AARD code-letters that Windows developer Aaron Reynolds used to tag his code ...

"When a ‘foreign’ operating system was detected, the bug froze the computer and displayed an ominous error message suggesting that the user contact Microsoft. When developers questioned the message at the time, Microsoft denied it was intended to derail DR-DOS. Documents to be produced at the Caldera trial suggest otherwise.

"’What the guy is supposed to do is feel uncomfortable when he has bugs, suspect the problem is DR-DOS and go out and buy MS-DOS and not take the risk,’ a Feb. 10, 1992, Microsoft memo said.

"The bug was decoded by a self-appointed software sleuth, Andrew Schulman, who published his suspicions in a technical monthly with a cult following, Dr. Dobbs Journal, in 1993. He thought the code may have been placed there deliberately but wasn’t sure, and unraveling it took some work. The code ‘turned out to be XOR-encrypted, self-modifying and deliberately obfuscated—all in an apparent attempt to thwart disassembly,’ he wrote. Mr. Schulman found that the code searches for two tiny differences between MS-DOS and DR-DOS, and when it discovers the latter, it halts the machine.

"’It appears to be a wholly arbitrary test, a gratuitous gatekeeper seemingly with no purpose other than to smoke out non-Microsoft versions of DOS, tagging them with an appropriately vague "error" message,’ he wrote.’"

--Erich Schwarz

I encountered that message in beta. I was not, you may recall, an early fan of Windows to begin with. It seemed slow and silly and didn't do much, and DesqView was better at task switching, which was really all the early versions of Windows did. I called about this thing and was told to ignore it, that it would be gone in production, and in fact it was gone in the production copy. Clearly I don't have a clue as to the intentions.

It does make me wish my friend Gary Killdall had got his divorce before the IBM team visited Digital Research with the notion of getting him to write an OS for the IBM PC…

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David G.D. Hecht []

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

I encountered the DR-DOS/Windows bug/error message when I first installed Windows over DR-DOS. I tried to start Windows and it gave me a DOS-like error message.

So, I called Digital Research Product Support (no doubt sounding rather panicky) and a rather annoyed-sounding tech told me not to worry, they were aware of the problem, were working on a patch, and would have the patch out within a few days.

And, within a week, they did, I downloaded it (must have been from a BBS, this was long before using the Internet for tech support was commonplace), installed it, and never had a problem again.

This is ancient history. It happened in an era when DOS/Windows was not even the dominant desktop operating system. And out of this minute oyster, the DOJ is going to create an antitrust stew? If so, it says more about the judicial system than about MS and their allegedly monopolistic practices, I fear.

v/r, dh

Now that you say this, I recall a similar experience. I had forgotten. Thanks. I tend to agree, it's grounds for a thin rabbit stew indeed.

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Scott Kitterman []

The OS monopoly is not the only one Microsoft has. Because of the proprietary file formats used in MS Office, the barriers to market success for any competitor are very high.

In my case, my company’s customer uses MS Office and so we have to use it at work because we send a lot of files back and forth. Because I do some of my work at home, I have to use MS Office. While other suites allow import and export to/from MS Office formats, the translation is not generally perfect and they lag the latest MS Office releases. Who wants to take the risk?

I’m not trying to suggest that Microsoft has done anything illegal here, but it certainly doesn’t foster the kind of broad based innovation Microsoft claims to stand for. Perhaps if they would publish the file format standards, people like me might have more of a real choice.

Scott Kitterman

Comes now E Gray to say:

E Gray []

Well, I have a few short comments about this statement.

1. How is anything Microsoft does in the office suite business different from that of other companies? (AFAIK, it isn’t...but I’m willing to admit my ignorance).

2. *Every* MS Office program I have used offers the ability to save files in other formats. Sure, there can be some features which don’t convert over well, but doesn’t that sorta explain *why* there are different formats? And doesn’t this happen with other companies and their formats?

3. Microsoft also makes viewers and separate converters available for many of their formats, you can check your Office 97 CD for them. Again, things might not appear the same, but they’re quite legible, with no real sacrifice in their usability.

4. Microsoft *does* publish their file formats, you can get them from the Microsoft Developer’s Network. Lotus and Corel certainly have no problems making exporters and importers, and I’m sure Caldera with StarOffice or Redhat and its Applixware could do it too, assuming they don’t do it now(I personally don’t know for sure...).

So in short, there doesn’t seem to be any real problem. If only people would just admit Microsoft isn’t the epitome of everything that’s evil and wrong in this world.

If it looks as if I am ducking my responsibilities here, not true: I'll let you carry on the debate for a while before I put in my own comments...


Steve Setzer []

Microsoft’s success comes from giving people software they perceive as a good deal. It doesn’t work as well as ZYX? So what, it’s cheap, and it does what people need. It crashes? Well, so do other packages in a similar price range, and the marginal loss from each system crash is low.

I think one reason people choose Microsoft is that users of "minority" platforms (see Amiga, Mac, OS/2) are more exposed to management screwups. Similar analysis for office suites—in particular WordPerfect was a terribly run company long before they found a sucker (Novell) to buy it.

Microsoft can screw up (e.g. the initial dismissal of the Internet when the handwriting was on the wall in neon) and still come back in a hurry. That’s what their dominant position buys them—time and resources to overcome mistakes. But looking at Apple’s recent surge and the rise of Linux, I’d say Microsoft’s dominance doesn’t come near to being a monopoly.

Steve Setzer (Mac driver)




charles simkins []

DR. P:

The problem is we get to talking in lawyer space rather than technical space or ethical space. I am not a lawyer, but a mechanical engineer and manager. In lawyer space, there may or may not be a case. However, I chose a DOS machine all those many years ago because of Apple’s insistence that I needed an expensive machine with graphic capabilities beyond my desires. Whatever they decided I needed they would give me and if it wasn’t there, I really didn’t need it. So Microsoft flourished, with most of us occasionally buying the OS, but the rest copying it at will. Cheap hardware and essentially free OS made a deadly combination. It wasn’t that Microsoft was good or reliable, remember the .0 versions of the DOS? What evolved was the pressure that Microsoft put on the manufacturers to pay for a whole package even if they didn’t want it. That and forcing them to not install software that was superior to Microsoft’s if they wanted the good price on the OS. That is lawyer space stuff, but it rankles to know that Microsoft used pressure tactics rather than superior technology to prevail. Having accumulated sufficient errors, in the Windows Registry, etc. of Windows 95, I did a clean setup of Windows 98, only to exchange one set of crashes in 95 for a new set in 98. Probably because I use Netscape as a browser. Yes Microsoft has a monopoly in the ethical sense, if not in the legal sense. If Apple had more gray cells than was needed to feed themselves, they would have ported their OS to Intel chips and competed on the OS field against Microsoft. Forget the legal crap, that is history. Get a competitive OS working against Microsoft and see the fur fly. After I get a new hard drive, I will get a copy of Zenix on it and start experimenting. Since I favor Wordperfect, I will get the version running on Zenix and whatever else comes out. Then maybe I won’t have to hard boot daily to get rid of the lockup that comes with Windows 98.

Charles Simkins




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