Open Systems, Huh?

<a href="displayarticle.asp?ID=3239925558PM"><img src="/archive/1999/pics/magician.jpg" border="0" align="left"></a>Unless Microsoft has a deal going with somebody else, NT without NT has no future, says Greg Scott in his column this issue.

In January, I wrote a column titled, "NT Without NT." It was about Compaq/Digital Equipment’s Pathworks product and other such products based on AT&T’s Advanced Server for Unix. These products provide NT file and print services, integrated with each vendor’s specific environment -- a cool idea for merging lots of good technology into flexible and integrated systems.

The best part was that AT&T and Microsoft had a deal in which Microsoft supplied Windows NT source code to AT&T. AT&T, in turn, built Advanced Server for Unix and sold it to the industry. Industry vendors then produced their own products integrating their technology with Microsoft’s. Since all this was based on the real Windows NT source code, compatibility with current and future versions of Windows NT was a good bet.

I congratulated Microsoft on its enlightened self-interest because making this technology available industrywide is good for everyone. With the big antitrust case looming, this seemed like an excellent and shrewd move on Microsoft’s part. Too bad I was wrong.

Lots of you sent me e-mail about that column, and a few of you pointed out some news that I missed. The story started back in March 1991 when AT&T and Microsoft signed a deal that allowed AT&T to internally use and modify source code for LAN Manager so it could create a Unix version. The companies modified the agreement in March 1994 to include current and future versions of NT source code so that AT&T could create Advanced Server for Unix (ASU). But Microsoft dragged its feet on delivering source and object code for betas of NT 5.0. Microsoft delivered the code in March 1997, but four months later demanded that AT&T return Build 1515. AT&T sued Microsoft for breach of contract.

Microsoft and AT&T agreed in principle to a settlement last July. The agreement went into effect Sept. 30, 1998. Evidently Microsoft paid AT&T, although nobody is saying how much.

This means that unless Microsoft has a deal going with somebody else, NT without NT has no future. I can speculate on Microsoft’s reasoning: If other vendors offer NT capabilities in their own products, this would cut into Microsoft’s sales of the real NT product. From Microsoft’s point of view, it may have been cheaper to pay off AT&T than to keep providing new versions of its source code.

Here in Minnesota I’m about as far away as it gets from any vendor power center, but it seems to me that the folks from Microsoft made a really dumb mistake with this move.

Forget about morality and keeping their word. Forget about scoring good PR points in an environment where the U.S. Department of Justice and just about everyone else is mad at them. The folks at the top of Microsoft blew an unbelievable opportunity to set a worldwide computing standard that could have lasted for generations. They could have made a deal to encourage -- instead of suppressing -- NT without NT, and could have collected royalty payments for every Unix or other system sold that serves PCs. Imagine Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and everyone else paying royalties to Microsoft for Unix and other systems.

Instead, Microsoft closed off access to future sources of NT services. And unless the company changes its direction, Windows 2000 will be our only choice for such services. Maybe Microsoft arrogantly believes the whole world will get rid of Unix and other platforms and migrate en masse to Windows NT/2000. Maybe they’re afraid of a truly competitive market, where vendors compete on their merits instead of hiding behind proprietary lock-ins.

A couple years ago I wrote about vendors becoming arrogant and stupid. When this happens, vendors go downhill. I lived through it once at Digital Equipment Corp. I watched as more than 60,000 people lost their jobs, and it began when Digital closed the BI bus to other vendors. Microsoft is repeating the same mistake by closing NT.

If you’re a decision-maker inside Microsoft, I strongly suggest you reconsider the AT&T decision. Continue to share the source code, encourage efforts like ASU, and collect lots of royalty payments. You could even set up a testing center to ensure compatibility. This is good for you, good for the industry, and good for customers. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.