21st: Microsoft spins

Let's Get This Straight: Scott Rosenberg on Microsoft's agreement with Justice, Netscape's distribution of its source code and a dubious e-mail from Wired.

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For weeks now Microsoft has been insisting that there is no way it can remove its Web browser, Internet Explorer, from the Windows 95 operating system, as a federal judge has ordered, without "breaking" users' computers or "rendering them inoperable."

Thursday, Microsoft reached an agreement with the Justice Department that resolves one part of the continuing legal dispute, and -- surprise! -- it seems that it is not so hard after all for Microsoft to comply with the judge's order. Microsoft will now make available two additional versions of Windows 95: one that still includes all the IE browser files but lacks the prominent placement of the program icon on the desktop; and another that's missing all those IE files that Windows' own "Add/Remove Programs" utility would remove if you told it to remove IE.

The Justice Department's lead antitrust lawyer was quick to declare "a victory for consumers and innovators," but the agreement will probably have little real-world impact. Since IE is distributed for free, it's highly unlikely that many computer manufacturers will opt for the browserless versions of Windows 95; why should they? Given Netscape's announcement Thursday that it will henceforth distribute its browser for free as well, the most likely outcome is that some computers will come with IE installed and others will come with IE and Netscape Navigator installed. Big deal.

But what really matters here isn't which browser will be bundled with the last few months' worth of Windows 95 systems; the continuing court battle's import lies in how it will affect Microsoft's next operating system, Windows 98, which is due later this year and promises a much tighter integration of the browser.

Microsoft's whole strategy from the start has been to maintain that the IE browser and Windows 95 are already inextricably intertwined -- even though the browser is available as a separate retail product. The most interesting aspect of Thursday's agreement, then, is the language Microsoft is using to make sure the deal doesn't look like a cave-in. If you read Microsoft's press release, it turns out that the company is not admitting that it is actually offering a browser-free Windows 95. Both of the new options "entail leaving all or nearly all of Internet Explorer in Windows 95, but removing or hiding customer access to the browser functionality."

This is a fair description of the version of Windows in which the browser icon has simply been removed from the desktop. But what about the one that has removed all the files the Add/Remove utility deletes when you tell it to remove IE? It sounds like what Microsoft is really telling us is this: "You know that feature of our operating system that lets you add and remove programs? Well, don't believe the name. It doesn't remove programs -- all it does is 'remove or hide your access to their functionality!'"

Microsoft continues to be in a no-win situation in this battle: In order to prove that its browser and its operating system cannot be separated, it has had to argue that its products and programs don't do what they're supposed to do ("remove" doesn't really remove). According to Microsoft, Windows has now become such a jungle that one can never really even say for sure whether a particular program is or is not installed on one's system.

The other news Thursday -- that Microsoft's chief browser competitor, Netscape, is going to start giving away Navigator -- isn't likely to have a lot of real-world impact, either: Since Netscape has always let people download gratis "evaluation copies" of Navigator, the product has been effectively free for some time now. Once Microsoft started giving IE away, Netscape was not in a position to hit up all those "evaluation copy" users for payment. So today's announcement just formalizes what is already a de facto reality.

More significant in the long term is Netscape's decision to open the source code to Navigator -- to publish it and make it freely available for independent software developers to extend and modify. With this move, Netscape is throwing its hand in with the "free software" movement -- the communities of developers who have made other open-code products like the Apache Web server and the Linux operating system into runaway successes. These free-software programs are among the only products that have managed to build and expand markets in a Microsoft-dominated software universe.

If Netscape plays its cards right -- and free-software experts are already suggesting that the company will have to back up the announcement with good documentation and long-term commitment -- the open-code approach could allow Navigator to leapfrog over IE and incorporate a wealth of innovative new features. Unless, that is, Microsoft frees the code for its browser. Don't hold your breath waiting for that, though: IE is an integral part of Windows, remember? And Windows' source code is Microsoft's crown-jewel asset, so Bill Gates isn't about to turn it loose for every random geek on the Net to tinker with.

I've been a "member" of HotWired since the day it launched in 1994, and mostly that has meant I regularly receive a weekly e-mail newsletter, which I occasionally read. This week, I -- along with thousands of other HotWired members and Wired magazine subscribers -- received a different kind of e-mail from Wired: a first-month-free offer to open an account with a new online investment service called Wit Capital. I almost deleted it, as I do with the rest of the spam offers that fill my in box, but some of the language caught my eye.

The letter describes Wit Capital as a "recent partner" of Wired. Interestingly, Wired's new February issue includes a long article by Wit's founder, Andrew Klein -- an excerpt from his forthcoming book, "WallStreet.com: Fat Cat Investing at the Click of a Mouse," which tells how he engineered the first ever Net-based public stock offering for his New York City microbrewery and then went on to found Wit Capital, named after his Belgian wheat beer. If you read to the end of the long, self-congratulatory piece, you also discover the following parenthetical fact: "(Among the more than 40 investors in Wit Capital would be Wired Ventures, which now holds a minority stake.)"

It's good that Wired learned the lesson of its CUC gaffe and disclosed its financial involvement in the company its magazine is writing about. Unfortunately, this very piece of information also casts the free e-mail offer in a more dubious light.

Wired Digital's director of marketing communications, Andrew de Vries, says that the company viewed the Wit deal as "a neat offer" of "something of value": "This was a case of providing a service to readers."

Perhaps Wired, which has always viewed itself as a breaker of old rules and a pioneer of new ways of doing things, simply feels that it is inventing new kinds of synergy by investing in a company, promoting the company in the pages of its magazine and then selling the company's services to its readers. Or maybe Wired -- more desperate than ever to figure out how to turn a profit -- is just belatedly joining the world of the old-fashioned computer press, whose ethics have often been slippery.

Either way, the magazine is not helping its credibility by giving readers the impression that it chooses its stories with an eye to its own bottom line. I like Net innovations and I love microbrews, but something about this deal leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------