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Microsoft's New Briar Patch

By Jim Dennis

By now most of use with an interest in the software industry and/or in the free software movement have probably heard of Microsoft's latest legal maneuvers, an offer to settle the remaining local antitrust cases (brought by many state's attorneys general) by providing computers and software to U.S. public schools.

"Please don't put me in de bre'r patch! Anything but that!"-- Uncle Remus

I can't believe that I'm alone in seeing this as playing into Microsoft's hands. If practically all of our children are raised running nothing but Microsoft software, then that's what they'll expect in college and throughout their careers.

Microsoft should be paying dearly to gain such a lucrative franchise. This is a far cry from punishment or remediation. Indeed, it is antithetical to restoring competition to the software industry.

As a Linux user and enthusiast, I don't care about Microsoft. I never believed that the Federal antitrust case would be effective; and I see the various state and private suits as being mere echos to that. The Europeans might see more effective measures taken by their EC, but that is unlikely. However, as an observer of the software industry, and a veteran in various segments of that market I have to re-iterate my views on the matter.

The only effective and fair remedies in this case must relate to the software. Specifically Microsoft must be required to publish source code to complete and working reference implementations of each protocol, API, and file format that they use in any of their applications and operating systems. They must be forbidden from distributing new software until the reference implementations are published. The reference implementations must be in the public domain (freely usable by all for free and commercial works).

In other words, given that Microsoft has become the standard in the industry (at least in part through illegal and anti-competitive means) then they bear the burden of providing enough information to everyone else to ensure interoperability.

We could argue endlessly about the adequacy of documentation, and the need to publish "internal" programming interfaces or "administrative" protocols. This would be a miscarriage of justice. Requiring a reference implementation for a set of command line primitive utilities, in ANSI standard C and/or C++ (no MSC or MFC entanglements) provides an unambiguous standard for their compliance. Either the requisite reference tools can perform the designated (minimal) functions over their protocols, on their target files, or calling their OS/library components, or MS is fined and enjoined from further distribution.

Note that this approach does not force MS to publish the sources to their OS or their applications. They are free to create an independent reference implementation. Of course that would be a expense to them; the cheapest path to compliance would be for them to engineer their software with a core (that would separately constitute the reference suite) and then add their UI elements on top of that.

However, it is vital that they be prohibited from releases new software until the reference suite is shown to provide the requisite interoperability. It's also critical that the remedy encompass protocols, APIs, and file formats.

Any less is just another example of government and big business posturing to the public while cutting their own backroom deals to line the pockets of the politicians and lockout the "little guy" businesses.

Jim Dennis

Jim Dennis is the proprietor of Starshine Technical Services. His professional experience includes work in the technical support, quality assurance, and information services (MIS) departments of software companies like Quarterdeck, Symantec/ Peter Norton Group, and McAfee Associates -- as well as positions (field service rep) with smaller VAR's. He's been using Linux since version 0.99p10 and is an active participant on an ever-changing list of mailing lists and newsgroups. He's just started collaborating on the 2nd Edition for a book on Unix systems administration. Jim is an avid science fiction fan -- and recently got married at the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim.

Copyright © 2001, Jim Dennis.
Copying license
Published in Issue 73 of Linux Gazette, December 2001

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