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A MozillaZine Reader Elaborates on His MS Remedy Plan

by ANDY HUNTER | I actually sent this to John Dvorak quite a while ago (start of the trial) and he said it was interesting and promised to publish it. I never saw it in print; but then again within one week of my mail to him everyone and their mother were predicting an easy Microsoft victory due to a baseless DoJ (Department of Justice) case. Well, I am dusting it off for MozillaZine.Org...

The idea struck me as a simple solution, at least from an intellectual point of view. It would be an elegant way for Microsoft to side step the DoJ and forestall any further lawsuits along the same lines. They would make OEMs (vendors) happy and possibly even increase their own market share. In addition, users would get an increase in the power and usefulness of computers. Of course, there is a downside to everything. Microsoft would lose the ability to leverage their Windows monopoly, which was something they have done with Netscape, Compaq, Caldera, AOL, and many, many others. It would also require a major rewrite of the OS code, thus making it a bit difficult to implement, at least the first time. Future versions of Windows would actually be easier to build and test.

The solution is to decouple most everything in Windows from Windows itself. In my plan, everything becomes modular, from the web browser to the disk tools to the shell. The core Win32 APIs (the functions for creating windows or drawing text or saving files or...) and file system would be "Windows 9x" while everything else, down to the look and feel would be replaceable. The core system from Microsoft would include all of their own "packages" like IE, Scandisk, and the Windows 98 shell. OEMs like Packard Bell/NEC would be able to choose what to keep and what to replace, like substituting Netscape Navigator or Communicator for IE, or designing their own shell. End users buying the blue boxes would get whatever Microsoft gave them, with no requirement for MS to ship competing packages. Consumers would be able to go out, buy Nuts & Bolts, and use that program in the place of Scandisk and Defrag, launching it from the same screen by pressing the same "Check Disk" button. Netscape would be allowed to set up Communicator to do everything the "integrated" Internet Explorer did.

The key to the new Windows design would be for the courts to rule that anything in Windows that doesn't directly relate to running applications or managing the disk be removed. In their place, MS would place some hooks for calling out to a different executable. This is basically what Windows does now, but the new Windows would include a provision for other companies to change what program is run. There would also be no more using program libraries (.dll files) to hold functions used by different packages. It currently looks like Microsoft is putting bits of Internet Explorer into Windows libraries, then claiming that since deleting the library files while deleting IE would kill Windows, they are one product.

This solution obviates the type of lawsuit currently being tried by making sure that not a single product or feature can use Windows' incredible market share as a club against similar products made by competitors. The DoJ would not get exactly the concessions it asked for before the suit was filed, but would probably like this more than playing heavy-handed government agency and breaking MS up. Every time Microsoft pulls something like what they did to Netscape ("cutting off air"), they are using a position of power to hurt consumers. Our choices are being made for us, especially for the relative newcomers like my grandparents. This maneuvering is not good for competition, and the resultant lawsuits are not good for Microsoft.

The benefits for us, the consumers, are many. For one thing, our operating system gets more powerful and more flexible. We have choices about what we get and what we use. We can customize our computers from almost the ground up, not only in hardware, but also in software. Another plus is the added competition among companies to produce better products in ALL aspects of the system, not just the applications. One more benefit is that we could all have very different systems and setups, but still run Win32 applications.

Computer manufacturers, in an era of razor-thin profits, would get what they desperately need, something to set them apart. Compaq would be able to sell business computers to business clients with a strict businesslike layout for the system software. Packard Bell would be able to brand themselves better if they could have a system with two shells. One could be sophisticated, like the Win 9x one, for adults, and the other a very simple one for the kids. They already have something a little like this, but it is just a variation on the Windows 95 shell, not a ground-up, kid-focused interface. IBM and Sony could do battle over whose hardware AND software offered a better package.

Microsoft would see both positive and negative effects from making such a move.

The most obvious negative is the loss of their stranglehold, which is enough, in my opinion, to ensure that they would never voluntarily do this. Even though using a monopoly to "cut off [an opponent's] air supply" is patently illegal, that is how they like to play. They used to be brave and crafty, but now they are lazy and crafty, else they would not stoop so low as they have. They currently try to hold a position where they can kill competitors or unruly partners. Not so obvious is that my idea would cost them some control over what their flagship product is and how it does its work. If the shell is replaceable and every function can be done by a competing product, Windows becomes what it should have been, a system manager. Microsoft is trying to use the "Windows experience" as a commodity to sell, not realizing that they are limiting the "Windows experience" to their own imagination. Microsofties are control freaks, and would see any loss of control as a very bad thing.

On the other side of the coin is the fact that Microsoft would be freed from most pending and future lawsuits. In 5 years when they want to put speech-recognition into their OS, they will not have to worry about IBM, Kurtzweil, and Dragon gunning for them like Netscape did. They would still be able to pre-load MS-Voice on all individual Windows copies sold. In addition, OEMs would have MS-Voice and the other default MS ones to start with, having to purchase replacement packages from alternate manufacturers.

One could even backpedal from my idea a bit and say that MS could require licensees like NEC to make consumers choose between the Microsoft module and the alternative when the computer was first turned on. Microsoft would not have to distribute Netscape's products or lose their initial integration of browser and OS, both of which were DoJ demands. They would have to allow OEMs and consumers to someone else's package directly in its place, however.

What Microsoft currently stands to lose in this trial is not the "freedom to innovate" as they claim, but the hearts and minds of their end users. Microsoft has a huge financial reserve, but if the public sees them as faltering or conniving, they are likely to jump ship. Developers write for Win32 not because it is elegant or easy (I've done it, and it is far from both), but because it is prevalent. If users start abandoning ship, developers would start producing programs for the other OSes. As more applications became available, more users would feel confident in the new OS and jump on board. This is a circular occurrence, with the end result being Microsoft's loss of market share, if not their dominance of the PC market. It sounds extreme, but all it takes is a few users and a few companies to make such a snowball occur. Lack of confidence in Microsoft after a year or two of lawsuits (think 15 to 30 human years, since computer generations are 18 months long) could be enough to start an exodus. We already see this happening with Linux. Most major business-oriented companies are backing Linux for use on low-cost servers and workstations. Oracle, Sun, and IBM have not been big friends of Microsoft in the past, but Hewlett Packard, Compaq, Dell, and Intel sure have. Microsoft may not know it yet, but if they do not solve their legal problems in a way that instills public confidence, they stand to lose the server market pretty quickly, with the consumer market following a little more slowly.

Needless to say, the chances MS would take my advice voluntarily are less than my chances of winning the lottery without buying a ticket. This may be moot since it looks like the DoJ is going to win, and the courts, not Microsoft, would be making the decisions. I no longer offer my idea as a suggestion for Microsoft, via John Dvorak. I offer it as a suggestion to the DoJ, via MozillaZine.

Andrew Hunter wishes desperately to find work as a talking head. Until then, he spouts his ideas at Monkey-Boy's Forum, pretty much at random.

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