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Down to the wire: Microsoft's reaction to Linux

Down to the wire: Microsoft's reaction to Linux

Microsoft mentioned in its filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, Sept. 25, that it considers Linux a competitive threat to Windows. Bad idea! This blatant attempt to deflect the US DOJ antitrust charges could easily backfire.

Linux poses a threat to Windows because companies such as Oracle, Informix, Sybase, IBM, Corel, Dell Computer, Intel, Netscape and others recently pledged support for Linux. Anyone with half a brain knows these companies only had the nerve to support Linux for one reason: They know Microsoft can't risk retaliation as long as the Justice Department's case is pending.

In the end, any attempt by Microsoft to cite Linux as evidence that competition is alive and well simply draws attention to the fact that competition was almost dead until the threat of Justice Department action revived it. And that simply highlights Microsoft's sordid past.

Microsoft couldn't pick worse timing to do that. If you think I've painted a bleak picture of Microsoft's past business practices, you should read Wendy Goldman Rohm's book The Microsoft File, published by Random House. If even half of what she says is true, I've been far too kind over the years.

Error in timing

Microsoft may also be committing a more serious error in timing. The company recently hinted it may ship Windows NT 5.0 in 1999's first quarter, earlier than previously expected. But NT 5.0 isn't even close to being ready.

Admittedly, it's just a single data point, but my experience with NT 5.0, Beta 2, has been nothing short of a disaster. I found it impossible to upgrade from NT 4.0. When I tried to create a fresh installation on the C: drive, it mysteriously decided to install itself on drive E: without so much as a "by your leave". I finally got it to install on drive C: by creating a fresh partition and reformatting the drive.

Two out of every three attempts to log in to NT 5.0 result in a blue screen of death. Unfortunately, the error messages I get are like Cabbage Patch dolls - no two are alike.

On those rare occasions when I can get NT 5.0 to stay alive until I get to the desktop, I have to kill the removable storage manager service (ntmssvc.exe) to prevent NT from crashing minutes later. This service vacillates between using 6MB and 110MB of RAM until NT dies. I also can't access my SCSI CD-ROM drive until I kill this service.

Some applications, such as Conversational Computing's Conversa Web, simply refuse to install on NT 5.0. Dragon NaturallySpeaking installs but refuses to run. IBM ViaVoice Executive installs and runs, but it refuses to control the desktop. Microsoft's own Outlook 98 runs, but it can't find any of my e-mail. Many other applications crash at random.

These problems with speech programs are somewhat poetic, because Bill Gates recently belittled Linux for lacking cool features such as speech recognition. Needless to say, Gates neglected to mention that Windows is one of the last platforms to support speech recognition, or that a company called Fluent Speech Technologies (www.fluent-speech.com) is doing some of the most fascinating research and development on speech recognition and synthesis using Linux.

There are some improvements. Some management tools have been consolidated, but this breaks some driver installation programs and makes it hard to navigate NT if you're used to Version 4.0. I missed a few of the better features between crashes, and NT might even have useful directory services in a few years.

Where's the beef?

But where's the beef now? The best thing I can say about NT 5.0 is that the mouse pointer has a drop shadow and the menus sport a cool fade-in and -out effect on all applications except Microsoft Office. Oh, and the included 3D Pinball program works great.

Linux might not threaten Windows at the client, but if Microsoft perceives Linux as an immediate threat to Windows NT at the server, that fact alone could cost Microsoft its desktop monopoly. The way things are shaping up, few decisions could damage Microsoft's hold on the desktop more than an early ship date for NT 5.0. The winner might not be Linux - more likely it would be network computing. But the loser would undoubtedly be NT 5.0.


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