foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world


A brief history of how Microsoft became a monopoly

, posted: 12-Oct-2007 09:40

There is a very interesting article over on the ITpro site. It is called 'Wrestling with the monopoly' and is about reasons for Linux adoption in the face of Microsoft's quasi-monopoly, and about the decision of the European Commission to demand from Microsoft the publication of their APIs and protocols. If you have the time to read the full article, please do. Even though it is a bit longer, it's very informative and actually covers a number of issues.

It starts out by briefly discussing the Linux desktop:

"Linux offers most of the features that are available to the alternatives, and many features that are superior. .... Most top of the range business software will run on Linux. It will run ... on cheaper hardware, and offers the promise of more cost effective support options and vendor neutrality.

"But to break Microsoft's hold on the desktop market and the general inertia of desktop users, Linux has to offer something more, something as compelling to Windows users as the PC was to an earlier generation.

"For the home user the answer is simple. Linux offers freedom and flexibility. A Linux desktop is much more versatile and configurable than the Windows and Mac alternatives. You can learn much more and perform more tasks - all at zero cost. The hang-ups can be summed up in two words, iTunes and games. But even then there are ways around the problem. The answer for the office user is probably more complex."
"iTunes and games". What an interesting summary, and probably correct, too. I personally know people who switched back to Windows after I had successfully convinced them to run Linux, just so that they could use iTunes. The mind boggles...

The road to the monopoly

But what I found most fascinating is the brief summary of how Microsoft managed to become a monopoly in the first place. The article lists a couple of examples:
  • WordPerfect. Overrun by the OS vendor offering a 'good enough' suite, backed by better marketing:
"... [WordPerfect] ultimately failed because it was too nice a company, and Microsoft succeeded because it was too persistent and ruthless a competitor. At the time WordPerfect was generally acknowledged to be
the superior product. It possessed a large and loyal user base in both the commercial and personal consumer markets but, by 1994, its share of the word processor market had begun to crumble in the face of a remorseless marketing campaign by Microsoft, aided and abetted by Microsoft's dominance of the PC operating system market."
And of course, Office comes from the same vendor as the OS. You sign one contract with a vendor and the other items can easily slip into the bill as well. Companies the world over use this tactic, of course. Microsoft uses its OS as a leverage to get other products sold to their customers. Tough for the competition, but still quite understandable.
  • Novell's NetWare:
"... which all but disappeared when Windows NT joined the party. Compared to NetWare's advanced networking functionality, Microsoft Windows for Workgroups was two tin cans and a piece of string, but Windows NT changed all that. Windows NT 3.1 was far from perfect, but it was "good enough" and Microsoft's marketing arm was "good enough" to paper over the considerable cracks..."
The networking capabilities were part of the OS weren't they? So here we can see then the beginning of a new strategy for Microsoft, where they ended up just integrating whatever features they found valuable into their infrastructure, in effect destroying the business model of other companies. This is contentious, and if the OS effectively is a monopoly then it completely stifles any competition. The same strategy was also used in its most famous example:
  • Netscape's Navigator web-browser:
"When Microsoft purchased ... IE ... from Spyglass, Netscape dominated the browser market. Microsoft solved the problem the easy way, by giving the browser away free, persuading OEMs to package IE with Windows, and by 'integrating' the browser into the OS. Giving IE away free cut Netscape's revenue stream and ensured a browser monopoly for Microsoft."
We all know this story very well. If all of this would be an advantage for the end user, with better capabilities and technology, then maybe this would be criticised less often. But sadly, the opposite is the case...

Open standards and innovation ... but only as long as they help us


One of the tactics used by Microsoft was the selective promotion of open standards to undermine a competitor, while then completely switching positions once the goal was achieved. Jeremy Allison, co-creator of Samba, recalls:
"In the days when Novell Netware dominated the file serving world Microsoft was a great supporter of standards. They published the specifications of their own protocols ... and supported implementations on other platforms than Windows," but once Netware was defeated by Windows NT "their attitudes changed, and the flow of information stopped. Proprietary modifications to core protocols like the Kerberos authentication protocol followed, and these changes were treated as trade secrets, patented if possible, and only released under restrictive non-disclosure agreements, if released at all."
The latter strategy has been aptly demonstrated by Microsoft over and over. Along the same line, we can see the example of how a monopoly player doesn't have a need to truly innovate anymore, once the monopoly status has been reached. Instead of improvements, which benefit the consumers, the maintaining the the status quo and further customer lock-in becomes paramount for the monopoly. Only serious competition can ensure continued improvements for the end users. This is perfectly illustrated with the story of IE:
"IE was far from perfect but, after the fall of Netscape, there was a five year lull of no competition or innovation between the release of IE 6 and the release of IE 7, which in turn was provoked by the inevitable rise of the open source Firefox browser..."

I know more than you do!


And just so that you don't think I can only quote from other articles, let me contribute a story out of my own industry experience. Many years ago, when there still was a company called 'Netscape', we were working on some server product. We evaluated ISS (Microsoft's web-server offering) against Netscape's web-server, both of them running on Windows NT. We closely monitored the network behaviour during load tests, and found that ISS showed less dropped connections than Netscape's server.

Further investigation revealed that the listen queue for the receiving socket under ISS was apparently longer than for Netscape. For those of you familiar with socket programming, you know that you are supposed to be able to set the length of the listen queue with the listen() function. We ended up writing a small test server, and found that no matter what large value we would set for the listen() function, our listen-queue was never longer than 5. Nothing special, really, since at that time many TCP stacks had limits on this, and listen() was not always making a difference. But yet, Microsoft managed to create a socket with a listen-queue longer than that!

How was that possible? Well, clearly there we some hidden APIs or capabilities, only known to them. Their official documentation didn't reveal anything more than the listen() function, with the demonstrated limitations. How can you compete against someone who uses their OS with secret shortcuts and features to ensure better performance than the competition?

The article talks about the European Commission deciding that Microsoft has to publish its APIs and protocols, and this can go a long way to at least level the playing field on some fronts. From anecdotal and personal experience, I have to say that this would indeed be a good thing, because a level playing field is sorely needed.


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Other related posts:
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And you thought your computer would do what YOU wanted...
The great 'Windows collapse' of 2011?








Comment by freitasm, on 12-Oct-2007 11:54

"For the home user the answer is simple. Linux offers freedom and flexibility. A Linux desktop is much more versatile and configurable than the Windows and Mac alternatives. You can learn much more and perform more tasks"

But, really, does mom and pop want to know how to do this? I know people who just want to send and receive e-mails, browse the Internet, and copy pictures from their digital camera.

They have no idea on how to install software and if Windows Update wasn't turned on their machine would never get security fixes and other updates.

People want something that you can turn on and use. No OS installation, driver CD to load, etc.

A Dell laptop running pre-installed Linux is the best thing for this OS to happen.


Author's note by foobar, on 12-Oct-2007 12:37

freitasm: Yes, I absolutely agree. Mom and Pop just want things to work. And these days, I would content that out of the box, more things are possible and work with Ubuntu than with Windows. For starters, it comes with all the apps you need to do the kinds of things Mom and Pop would want to do.

Most people are not aware of the fact that Windows is actually at least as 'difficult' to install as Linux, and that you can do much less with it on its own. It's just that the OEMs pre-configure it for you, and - for example - load DVD playing software on it for you, because Windows alone can't play DVDs (another myth).

If Linux would get the same treatment by the OEMs, people would find it easier to use and safer in many ways. Dell 'offering' laptops and PCs with Linux pre-installed is a great first step, and I hope they will expand this and that other OEMs will follow suite. They are still advertising it for 'enthusiasts', though, which is a bit of a bummer and might turn off some of those potential Mom and Pop customers.


Comment by bradstewart, on 12-Oct-2007 14:59

Ahhh more FUD.

FYI Windows by itself can play DVDs. There is this thing called Vista now.

Out of the box Windows is by far the easiest to get going. As an OEM we do very little in the way of configuration, we do not install anything for the customer.

We have had people get Linux preinstalled on their machines, 10 in the last year. All but one of those came back within a week and requested we put Windows on it because Linux was just too confusing to install things on and do their day to day stuff with.


Author's note by foobar, on 12-Oct-2007 15:31

bradstewart: FUD? Hahaha! Read your posting and tell me which one is FUD.

Yes, right. So then, why did Windows Media Player tell me I have to install codecs to be able to play DVDs, and then pointed me to a web-site where I could buy them? Hm? That was after I installed Windows fresh from the CD that came with my laptop. Why did I get a second CD of a commercial product shipped with my laptop, which contained a DVD reader (and codecs), which I had to install separately after the Windows install was done? Hm? And I'm talking about Windows XP here, the one that most people are still running.

I'm just glad that more than 10 people have requested the Dell pre-installed with Linux.


Comment by KiwiOverseas66, on 12-Oct-2007 18:06

"iTunes and games". What an interesting summary, and probably correct,
too. I personally know people who switched back to Windows after I had
successfully convinced them to run Linux, just so that they could use
iTunes. The mind boggles..."

Hi Foobar. Another interesting blog :-). The quote above is indicative of so many situations both inside and outside the industry where the (technically) better product has lost out due to some seemingly irrelevant issue. The one the comes easily to mind of course is the whole betamax versus VHS battle. This appears to be playing out all over again with the HD DVD versus Bluray battle (which according to some articles will be decided according to which ever way the porn industry decides to go)!

I certainly remember the days of wordperfect - had been in an organisation on Novell groupware. I was also a fan of Lotus notes collabrative abilities at its height as well. Microsoft has certainly been aggressive in its response to other companies - but what do you think it should do? Obviously giving software away (such as IE) is not supported by governments no matter how much it might benefit the consumer as this tactic tends to favour large companies who can absorb the development cost - as opposed to smaller companies trying to establish a foothold. Preventing this sort of marketing technique would run into numerous problems as well since the open source community also gives its software away. Clearly you support government intervention to curtail the activities of large corporates - so how do you think the EU should move against microsoft?

"How can you compete against someone who uses their OS with secret
shortcuts and features to ensure better performance than the
competition?"

Sorry - are you actually saying something along the lines of " how dare they make their product better and not tell anyone how they did it"? I understand the disadvantage your highlighting when the maker of the OS doesn't publish APIs/ capabilities which in turn give its own application as advantage over anyone elses - that is by no means a situation unique to the IT industry. Electronics, automotive engineering, etc - are full of examples of companies that walk a fine line between supplying add ons to a dominant player while wrestling with the idea of challenging them head on. Shall I supply an after market performance kit for GM, or should I build a whole new car? Tough call - but I'm not sure its an issue for the government to decide.

"From anecdotal and personal experience, I have to say that this would
indeed be a good thing, because a level playing field is sorely needed."

As a student of economics - I'm a bit skeptical of the way this term (level playing field) is thrown around by governments (the same way that "monopoly" is used these days to describe any large corporate occupying a dominant position in the marketplace). As any eco 101 student could probably tell you - there is no such thing as a level playing field. Competition is confrontation. The market is in a constant state of flux. Players seek to exercise an advantage over competitors. Systems theory will also tell you that within any competitive system, players will compete until that system reaches some form of equilibrium - with 1 of 3 outcomes.

1) Players will compete until there is only one entity left (monopoly),
2) Players will compete until one dominates, while smaller players occupy niche markets,
3) Players will compete until all players reach a similar size/ position in the market place and reach an agreeable compromise.

Obviously 1 is not desirable, 3 is what we have with the banking and petroleum industry, 2 is what we have with telecommunications.

Anyway - sorry for taking up so much of your blog. Again - good subject and a very thought provoking.


Comment by paradoxsm, on 12-Oct-2007 19:06

I disagree, I had amazing bad problems installing Vista which is turn screwed a partition and installed a bad bootloader.

I have recently taken the plunge and installed Fedora and it's fantastic. the install was super simple and amazingly logical, installed perfectly first time and started up superbly.

I'm a total Linix Newbie and had everything running within 20 minutes. I could not get my head around vista's quirks and annoyances after two weeks.

For a MOM and POP, it would be better, Email and internet is there awaiting and any updates came up all automatically and asked for full confirmation in plain language.

The best of all, Full office functionality was included, try doing that for Vista.

With USB mass storage being just an open protocol, the days of "needing windows" to run peripheral devices are also extinct.


Windows last hold? Gaming. This will no doubt start to sway however. and XP is 30% faster than vista was on my PC.. Mine got a "vista performance" of 7.8 so it's a killer box apparently.


Author's note by foobar, on 12-Oct-2007 19:49

KiwiOverseas66: I completely understand that naturally, every corporation will try to maximise its profits. You can't fault them for it. Nevertheless, at some point, when a single corporation has reached a quasi-monopoly status, the legislators typically step in. That is what we have seen with the privatisation of telecommunications companies the world over. We have seen it in the 1970s with AT&T in the US, for example. We have also seen it with IBM, where in the mid 1960s their habit of bundling free software with their mainframes was deemed bad competition, and they had to start to unbundle their hardware and software: Thus, the software industry was born.

These days, the we have a company that is a quasi-monopoly, and therefore all those aspects of 'normal' market competition are exaggerated. Of course companies will try to put themselves in a better position than their competitors. But once you reach monopoly status, these kinds of things usually wake up the legislators. Microsoft enjoyed this monopoly status for a long time, and took full advantage of it. I can't blame them for it, most other corporations would have done the same. However, I also have to say that they now probably deserve the attention of the legislator. Not because they are particularly 'bad', but because they are a monopoly and thus their success now comes at the detriment of all of us.


Comment by VanAlstine, on 13-Oct-2007 09:31

The only reason I have a dual-boot system (XP and PCLinuxOS) is so that I can play Command & Conquer Red Alert 2! I looked into using wine and Cedega to get it to work, but it was so fricken' complicated, I thought, 'this is stupid and a waste of time!' I enjoy the game on XP and things are simpler. I agree that in many ways Linux is superior, but if you just use your machine for email and gaming, using XP is a no brainer. The only people using linux are techies and philosophical types who resent the Micro$oft Monopoly (I fit in both categories) The only way linux will ever take off is if there is a 'killer ap' and more vendors offer Pcs installed with Linux and the 'killer ap'.....my opinion for what it's worth......


Author's note by foobar, on 13-Oct-2007 09:54

VanAlstine: Yes, lack of gaming support for Linux is a problem. What Dell is doing (and hopefully others in the future) might influence the decision makers in the gaming industry, but so far it doesn't look like it.

I am wondering, though, since we are talking about 'Mom and Pop' users... if I think about my parents, I wouldn't think about them as gamers. Internet and e-mail, photos of their grand kids and maybe some Skype. Sure. But gaming? Not them.

So, considering that all the other stuff is supported well on Linux (still waiting for Video support on Skype for Linux, the only non-free software I am running) wouldn't the lack of gaming support go away as a problem? Those particular users probably won't care all that much for gaming anyway, no? So, shouldn't a Linux desktop be perfect for them? It takes care of itself, less viruses and other such problems?


Comment by VanAlstine, on 13-Oct-2007 22:02

I love Linux and consider myself an intermediate user, but I spent hours trying to get my microphone to work with skype and I just couldn't get it to work (various forums, etc...) Just like the gaming/wine/cedega thing, it was a waste of time: I can make VOIP calls in XP with hardly any fuss. The only solution is vendors selling machines that already have everything installed and working on them...


Comment by KiwiOverseas66, on 15-Oct-2007 02:32

"These days, the we have a company that is a quasi-monopoly, and therefore all those aspects of 'normal' market competition are exaggerated. Of course companies will try to put themselves in a better position than their competitors. But once you reach monopoly status, these kinds of things usually wake up the legislators. Microsoft enjoyed this monopoly status for a long time, and took full advantage of it. I can't blame them for it, most other corporations would have done the same. However, I also have to say that they now probably deserve the attention of the legislator. Not because they are particularly 'bad', but because they are a monopoly and thus their success now comes at the detriment of all of us."

Its kind of absurd really when you think of it. One of the perfectly natural consequences of competition is that some companies will win and expand while others will fail and reduce in size (perhaps even cease to exist). If one company succeeds in grabbing the majority of market share they will occupy a dominant position (scenario 2 as outlined in my previous post). They are then deemed to be a "quasi monopoly" - which is a political term and not an economic one - which then requires the government to step in an use legislation to reverse or alter the situation creating "quasi competition" (a little artistic license there...;-). I'm not suggesting this is the case with Microsoft (they more or less created their own space when no one else was around - its more their reaction to subsequent competition that has gotten them off side with legislators) .I just sometimes think Governments have a very surreal view of the market and what its suppose to look like. One thing this scenario highlights is how for many government - competition has become the objective rather than the means - hence anything deemed to be anticompetitive (such as a market dominated by one player) is automatically bad. In promoting competition, do governments actually have an idea of what it will produce? More importantly - if a particular company/ product/ technology fails do governments actually understand why?


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New Zealand


  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
  • Where I have been: Here and there, all over the place.




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