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Microsoft: The Inglourious Basterds of Computer Science

Vader loves you. Part one of many.

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The inglourious Windows Se7en hits the planet on 22 October 2009 and with that the Internet will suffer yet another calamity. Not all the preaching and warning in the world by the people who really care for the digital future will discourage the typical Windows luser from adopting it.

Microsoft have a core group of XP users who staunchly refused to adopt further updates but their fate will be sealed by a greedy company intent on forcing them to upgrade anyway.

Peter Gutmann demonstrated long ago that the bulk of the development of Windows since XP has focused on the systematic degradation of audio and video signals and not about the important issue of user safety. And yet the final product last time around was so unwieldy and unpleasant to use that even fanatical users found it impossible to adopt.

The failure Microsoft have suffered has been due to their inability to secure their operating system for their users. Instead they introduced a 'guessing game' system whereby users would be warned when potentially catastrophic things could occur through innocent user interaction (as parodied in the Apple 'cancel/allow' ads).

The thought that the system was so weak it couldn't prevent these disasters on its own is something that's largely escaped this sheltered clueless computer user group. They still don't understand that an operating system that informs a user after the fact that the OS kernel has been compromised and must be reinstalled isn't an operating system at all - it's a joke.

Windows 95 was introduced on 24 August 1995 - a full year late in release. And with that release came the 'web revolution' where suddenly millions of Windows users knew they had to get online like others but often didn't know why, didn't know what the Internet was (much less why they'd want to have access to it) and in some cases didn't even know they needed a computer to connect.

By the end of the last millennium Microsoft were deeply embroiled in a 'cat and mouse' game with the US Department of Justice, trying every trick in the book (and some never found in books) to hide evidence, destroy evidence, and manufacture evidence. It didn't help much but ten years on there are not many people - especially Windows lusers - who know much about these events, or in the best case retained any of it.

This article is for them.

Unfit for Use

Ars Technica recently published an extensive screenshot essay on the visual changes of Windows Se7en. As if such superficialities were of any import. And what's most remarkable about such articles (and the comments attached to them) is that the product is so horrendously lacklustre and the people making the comments have 'NFC' about how much better other platforms are at doing the same things. Windows today can't even show significant superficial improvements over Windows 95.

'Se7en' is the 'same old same old' all the way - the same old shit.

A great lesson in life for the more intelligent is that you can rarely teach the less intelligent anything at all. They don't know how stupid they are - they don't know there are others more intelligent and better informed. There have even been academic research projects proving this - something that should be an obvious truth. And yet there you go - 90% of all computer users are hopelessly stupid. And that's a fact.

They're stupid because they're using such a lacklustre unsafe product and they're hopeless because almost nothing will ever change them. And in all likelihood they lack the requisite grey matter to grasp the issues. And perhaps lack the conscience to admit their part in the scheme of things and take action accordingly.

The day Windows and Microsoft products in general are declared 'unfit for use' and banned from being connected to other computers and the Internet will be a watershed for the connected world. But until that day comes all the more alert people can do is continue spitting on the stone - and for their own colleagues preaching to the choir. If you know this already then there's not much to read; if you don't know it then odds are good you can't read and even if you could you'd be unable to process the information and do anything constructive about it.

And so there's little tangible reason for even covering topics such as this. And yet this is the one thing those in the know must do for those who remain in the dark - and continue to hope for the best.

Back to 1998

The evil of Microsoft started to appear for most people when the battle to keep Java off the Windows desktop got underway. 'Microsoft so feared that Java would undermine its Windows franchise that its highest executives cemented partnerships with influential companies to prevent Sun Microsystems from getting them first', wrote CNET on 23 September 1998. 'After declaring the Java threat a top priority Microsoft sought to acquire, invest in, or close deals with several companies to take mindshare away from Sun, according to internal Microsoft documents.'

Java - and only by association Netscape Navigator - was the real threat because James Gosling's language meant programs could be written to run on anyone's operating system. Windows would no longer be needed; Microsoft would lose their desktop hegemony.

Microsoft attacked the perceived threat in two ways: by blocking Netscape's entrance into the PC market and by intentionally trying to corrupt the Java standard.

'We do NOT want to ship the standard with Windows because we want to make the native APIs more attractive. We want to evolve the standard APIs rapidly, and not have ISVs spending time on something that is cross platform', Bill Gates was to write in a memo back then.

'Java standard server APIs are bad news for us. I veto any cooperation with this group unless someone comes and convinces me otherwise', he added.

'We should quietly grow J++ share and assume people will take advantage of our classes without ever realising they're building Win32-only Java apps', contributed Microsoft executive Thomas Reardon in a memo dated 26 November 1996.

The intentions of Microsoft were patently clear - despite their having signed onto the same Java agreement over 100 other corporations also signed onto. None of the other companies ever dreamt of violating the agreement - only Microsoft.

What Joe Luser has to ask is: is such devious behaviour on the part of Microsoft in Joe Luser's best interests? Was Microsoft's guerilla warfare against the Java standard something Joe Luser stood to benefit by? Were the contracts Steve Ballmer forced on OEMs and ISPs to prevent users from downloading and using Netscape Navigator in the best interests of Joe Luser?

Can Joe Luser claim that a world without choice is better than a market without manipulation?

Write Once, Run Anywhere

The motto of Java is often expressed as 'write once, run anywhere'; an internal memo from back then revealed the Microsoft strategy as making sure 'write once, run anywhere' never happened.

The evidence in the approaching DOJ trial provided 'a rare look at the intensity of Microsoft's competitive practices', wrote CNET. They even went so far as to thwart Intel's own Java research. As early as 1996 Intel were working with Sun on several Java projects including a 'Java Media Framework' which gave programmers on numerous platforms the ability to add sound and graphics to their Java applications. It took a while but by July 1998 Intel quietly killed the project, citing 'changing Java market conditions'.

'We don't want to elaborate because it would tend to give us a position in the dispute where we haven't had a position and where we don't plan to take a position', said Intel spokesperson Chuck Mulloy at the time.

In May 1997 Microsoft purchased DimensionX, a company they believed close to being acquired by Sun Microsystems in possession of push technology Netscape were planning to use.

What was Microsoft's leverage? In addition to the customary threats and bribes Microsoft pointed out that an emerging platform independent Java could reduce dependence on Intel's processors.

Microsoft did not come upon their 'sabotage strategy' all at once. Initially Microsoft attempted to use public relations people to change the common perception of Java - and to convince outsiders Java was a 'primitive' product that needed enhancements from Microsoft.

Embrace and Extend

'We need to embrace the merits of Java technologies and then move beyond them and provide value above and beyond the offerings of Netscape and Sun', Microsoft's John Ludwig told his colleagues.

Microsoft spokesperson Jim Cullinan later provided the ultimate insult so typical of Microsoft.

The reason Java stalled is that it's failed to live up to its 'write once, run anywhere' promise, he said. And that has nothing to do with Microsoft.

As the DOJ trial later ascertained, things weren't that simple at all.

The Netscape Carrot

Microsoft deny it but no one believed them: they saw Netscape as a huge threat. Why? Because Netscape planned on porting their browser to Windows and supporting Java. And with Java in the Navigator browser no one would need Windows.

Bill Gates 'summoned' Netscape execs to Redmond where he told them in no uncertain terms they would not be permitted to port Navigator to Windows. But he held out a carrot too: access to hidden Windows APIs so Netscape could use them in other application domains.

They 'emphasised they could not accept Netscape competing as a platform with its own APIs', said Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen.

What's so great about the hidden features of the Windows API? Ask IBM, the acknowledged masters at the game. IBM can 'modularise' things better than anyone. The path from A to B is never straight, going instead through C, D, E, and so forth. Should an upstart try to compete with a better and cheaper product, Big Blue need only calculate the upstart's 'threshold of pain' - how much of a price war they can endure - and then run them out of business and perhaps buy them up for a song.

Microsoft first opted to integrate Java into the Windows API but Gates got paranoid about this and Microsoft did an about-face, deciding to 'pollute' the Java standard instead.

They also manipulated their APIs to sabotage Apple's QuickTime and Real's technologies.

Stolen Code

To eliminate Java and Netscape Navigator Microsoft also needed to come with a replacement for Navigator. It didn't have to be 'best of breed' - merely a 'replacement'.

Microsoft's replacement for Netscape Navigator was stolen code. Gates found a company with the same basic source tree as Navigator and entered into a deal to pay them royalties for every copy of his own browser he sold. It's just that Gates and only Gates knew he was never going to sell Internet Explorer - he was going to give it away for free to run Netscape out of business.

What Joe Luser has to ask is: is such devious behaviour on the part of Microsoft in Joe Luser's best interests? Was Microsoft's guerilla warfare against the Java standard something Joe Luser stood to benefit by? Were the contracts Steve Ballmer forced on OEMs and ISPs to prevent users from downloading and using Netscape Navigator in the best interests of Joe Luser?

Can Joe Luser claim that a world without choice is better than a market without manipulation?

See Also
Wikipedia: Embrace and Extend

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