July 13, 2001

Microsoft's XP: It could be worse

Author: JT Smith

- by Jack Bryar -

- Open Source Business -

I won the lucky ticket! I got a copy of Windows XP -- actually Release
Candidate 1, for the astounding price of around $20, or substantially
less than a couple of Linux distros I could mention. I have to report
that the critics who said that XP is little more than Windows 2000 with a
marketing budget have it wrong. There are some features in the new OS which
aren't bad. I haven't crashed it once, and this makes the first time I have
ever gone 24 hours on a Windows box without something going wrong. There are
even a few baby steps that acknowledge the reality of open standards,
especially XML.
There are also a lot of features that were frustrating, opaque
and likely to generate a couple more lawsuits, if anyone wants to bother
any more.

My copy doesn't contain the newest feature -- or the newest lack of
one. IE5 can be removed without messing up your desktop-- at least it can be
sorta removed. The company just announced that it is allowing OEMs to
take Explorer off the desktop if they want to. They even get to tweak
the desktop a little. I suppose I should be impressed.

Microsoft's IE announcement Wednesday comes out at the same time as the
company's release of news that its sales had been about 5% better than
most analysts were forecasting, making it just about the only
mainstream IT company to beat expectations during the last quarter. It also
comes as the European Commission has been examining a number of antitrust
issues against the company. Microsoft said it had made changes to its
software licenses "in light of the recent ruling by the U.S. Court
of Appeals." Most observers assumed this was an attempt to position the
company as addressing the technical complaint against it without
conceding any point of real importance to the company, or Microsoft's business

As ploys, it's a pretty good one. While the company has made changes
that would make it easier for PC manufacturers to promote competing
browser or other application software, or remove Microsoft's Internet
Explorer browser, this battle was given up long ago. The browser
war has been over for a long time. Chances are that if you are a Windows
addict, you've adapted Internet Explorer. Given the growth of
XML formatted Web content, chances are good that if you use a corporate,
closed-source desktop, you'll find yourself using IE5 on a regular basis, like it or
not, simply because the new IE does a superior job of parsing XML
formatted content. So -- "conceding" on the browser costs the company nothing,
it provides the appearance of reacting to the court's findings, and it
gives a less-than-enthusiastic Justice Department an excuse to settle. It
also may torpedo many of the pending private antitrust lawsuits that have
been lingering in the courts pending the outcome of the federal case. Because
many of those suits specifically mention the browser issue, Microsoft
can claim it has addressed the problem and move to get the cases thrown
out of court.

Besides the company now has other targets in its gun sights. Among
these are independent media clients, real-time Internet based messaging, and
a new type of technology called "enhanced content." The method for
dealing with these potential claimants to Microsoft's monopoly are being dealt
with the old fashioned way. Microsoft is embedding a competing
technology deeply into its operating system and Office suite.

Streaming media has gone mainstream. And the company has embedded
support for streaming media deeply into its applications and the core platform.
Closed-source end users may find it hard to justify even bothering with
alternative products offered by the likes of Real network. Although I couldn't tell for sure, the company appears to have gone out of its way to find reasons to embed its instant messaging platform into the core of XP. I say that I couldn't tell. I could never get the
darn thing to work. It may be that this is what you get for beta
software. It may be that the only time I got to try it out coincided with a
reported crash of Microsoft's messaging servers. Or it may be that this is a
Microsoft product after all. Beats me.

I do understand why the company has gone to all the effort, however.
For at least six years, every telecommunications company worthy of the name
has pursued the idea of an IP-based unified messaging system that would
allow for real-time and streamed messages, portable to a variety of
platforms (PC to PDA to portable phone) and supporting whatever mix of media
(text, image, voice) that made the most sense given the particular setting.
AOL Instant Messenger, and to a lesser extent, Yahoo and Microsoft have
finally made a market (not a profit -- it's still the Internet, after all). When
the local teenagers in your community use dial-up to send messages to
their friends rather than simply make a local call, you know you have a hit
on your hands.

It's quite possible that this multimedia messaging is the glue that
will connect all these electronic devices together. If that turns out
to be the case, then Microsoft may feel it has no choice but to make sure
that it takes over the instant messaging the way that it blew away the
competition in the browser market -- by using its desktop monopoly
to eliminate any competition. It could generate a new set of
complaints, but this tactic hasn't cost the company anything to date.

Of all the obvious businesses areas targeted by XP, the worst
Microsoft performer was something called Smart Tags. Smart tags use extensible markup language to auto generate contextually relevant hyperlink tags to provide context. Puzzled by an obscure word? Today, companies like Navilink
or Atomica provide Windows users
with software that links to the Web or to proprietary knowledge bases that
include thousands of definitions, biographies and links to company data to
help you make sense out of what you read. While not widely used yet, these
are the core of a promising application called "content
enhancement services." Like other good ideas, Microsoft is proposing to hijack it
and embed its features into the OS, and into its suite of Office products.

In Release1 however, the most notable thing about Smart Tags,
is how really dumb they are. A number of the suggested links didn't
make a lot of sense. Contextual content analysis requires real work, and
phrases, in particular, really gave the system trouble. Smart Tags also
generate the same kind of potential for abuse that got Microsoft into so much
trouble with its Internet Explorer offering, when company after company was
pressured into signing exclusionary contracts in exchange for preferential
placement in Microsoft's list of "favorites" and Web sites. How does Microsoft propose
to determine when or how its Smart Tags automatically link to one site or another? And how many
of these links are going to connect to MSN or some favored partner?
It's hard to know. Based on the company's history it looks like potential

However, to give credit where it's due, the Smart Tag system uses
XML rather than a completely proprietary approach, and allows for third-party developers to evaluate Microsoft tags and generate their own
suites of tags. That's more than some of the company's competitors have done
in this space.

It is still a closed system. The company still uses its monopoly in
questionable ways. But it has also introduced some features that Open
Source developers will have to address if they are to have a hope of holding
onto a piece of the desktop. And there are tiny (tiny!) steps toward
acknowledging that sometimes, more open is better. I suppose that's a start.

Click Here!