Thursday, July 31, 2003

Tim O Reilly speaks about how MS almost won the Web

The antitrust suit and Judge Jackson's finding of fact have focused on how Microsoft used its operating system dominance to wrest control of the Web browser market from Netscape. Perhaps even more significant is the untold story of Microsoft's attempts to corner the Web server market. As someone whose company competes directly with Microsoft, (we sell a Web server called WebSite that runs on Windows NT, and we are active in promoting Perl, Linux and other open-source technologies), I've been privy to some of the not-so-small details that have guided the course of this recent history. And, it seems to me that if it weren't for the work of a small group of independent open-source software developers, the Justice Department intervention might have come too late not just for Netscape but the Web as a whole.

Judge Jackson made the astute point that the browser is a kind of middleware and, though it uses the features of the operating system, it provides additional "applications programming interfaces" (API) of its own. The most familiar of these aren't APIs like Win32, which describes how to write programs for Windows, but rather languages and protocols like HTML, Javascript and HTTP. Anyone who runs a Web site is intimately familiar with the attempts by both Microsoft and Netscape to turn these open standards to their advantage by introducing proprietary incompatibilities into the version of HTML recognized by their browsers. But the APIs that have turned out to matter don't just reside in the browser.

Judge Jackson's analysis completely avoided the server side of the equation -- and it is the server which has turned out to be the real next-generation platform

most interesting new applications of the past few years don't reside on the PC at all, but on remote Web servers. I'm talking about, eBay, E-Trade, Yahoo Maps and so on

The company clearly has a monopoly on client-side operating systems and has consistently tried to use that monopoly to extend its leverage to any new platform it can.

Originally IIS, Web server software that runs only on the NT operating system, was bundled "free" with a version of NT called NT Server. Web server vendors such as Netscape and O'Reilly responded by pointing out in our advertising and PR that if customers ran our third-party Web server software on NT Workstation (a less expensive version of NT, which came without the IIS Web server software), they would end up with a more powerful server than Microsoft's IIS running on NT Server -- and it would cost less too.

Much as it had done by bundling the browser with Windows 98, Microsoft was bundling an application -- the IIS Web server -- as part of an operating system, (NT Server). But in this case, the company offered another version of the same operating system without the bundle, (NT Workstation). It seemed natural to competitors to offer our products on top of the version of the operating system that came without IIS.

It did not, however, please Microsoft that we did so. In June 1996 Microsoft responded by changing the license to NT Workstation to prohibit its use as a server platform. (At first, the company went further, and actually crippled the version of TCP/IP provided in NT Workstation, but the outcry from users forced it to backtrack.)

Microsoft argued, quite rightly, that it had the right to create two different versions of NT, with different price points, and different functionality. But the company went a step further, and used its operating system license (and more specifically the license to the parts of the operating system that implemented TCP/IP, an industry standard protocol) to prohibit the use of third-party applications that duplicated the functionality of Microsoft's more expensive platform.

The main point is that in each case, Microsoft used its power over the operating system to tilt the playing field in its favor, doing its utmost to crush the competition in a hotly contested Internet application area. In the browser arena, Microsoft bundled a browser into the operating system that runs most of the world's PCs and then created obstacles for Netscape to package its browser on new PCs. In the server arena, Microsoft used a very similar tactic; it bundled the IIS Web server software with the NT operating system and then created roadblocks and financial disincentives for NT users to use alternate server applications. As a result, Microsoft was able to reserve the greatest slice of Web server space on NT for itself.

But Microsoft's operating system is not nearly as entrenched in the server world as it is in that of the PC. So, once the company effectively blocked third-party Web server vendors on NT, Microsoft next set its sights not just on servers that ran NT, but on all Web servers. It was widely reported that during the summer of 1996 (that same summer that Microsoft revised its NT Workstation license to disallow its use as a server platform), Bill Gates told securities analysts that he considered Apache, rather than Netscape, to be his company's chief competitor in the Web server space

Microsoft's IIS is today the number two Web server -- with 25 percent market share to Apache's 54 percent

The infamous "Halloween Documents," internal Microsoft documents analyzing a possible response to Linux describe a strategy of "extending" the "commodity protocols" on which open source projects depend, as a way of denying open source an entry into the market.

it is clear that if not for Apache's continued dominance on the server side, the protocols and APIs on which the Web depends would have belonged almost entirely to Redmond. (The Apache Group's firm embrace of open standards is one of the great unsung stories of the Web, and a key part of the magic that has kept its innovation alive.)

. If Microsoft, having trounced Netscape, hadn't been surprised by the unexpected strength of Apache, Perl, FreeBSD and Linux, I can easily imagine a squeeze play on Web protocols and standards, which would have allowed Microsoft to dictate terms to the Web developers who are currently inventing the next generation of computer applications


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