NT users pay premiums for subtle code changes

Microsoft, it seems, can’t help but find trouble. They just don’t seem to understand when to stop.A couple of recent incidents come to mind. In one case, according to allegations to the Justice Department by Netscape Communications, a Microsoft executive publicly stated that Microsoft planned to “squeeze Netscape until they run out of cash.” (Of course, everyone in the business “knew” this, but did this executive have to actually say it?)
The other, more complicated, situation concerns the newly released Windows NT. I’ll try to make it simple.
Windows NT is an operating system, sort of like Windows 95’s big brother. It actually comes in two flavors, Windows NT Workstation and Windows NT Server. The Workstation is the version used by most people sitting in their little cubicles typing away. The Server is the version that all those workstations connect to – it’s the system that’s used to administer the network.
Now, as you might imagine, there’s a price difference for these products; about $300 (“street” price) for the Workstation, and $700 for the Server. What, exactly, do you get for your money? Well, the extra power of the Server, of course. The Server is, according to Microsoft, a very different product, containing 700 different software settings. It’s, well, optimized for doing the job of a network server.
Only it seems that perhaps that claim is a little misleading. While it may be true that NT server differs from the Workstation in 700 little ways, the question is “why” it differs. (This is one of those cases when you have to know the correct question to get the correct answer.)
You see, it turns out that Windows NT Workstation and Windows NT server are actually the same program. The only difference is that they’ve been told to operate in a different manner.
Windows NT has something called the System Registry, a sort of database of instructions that tells the operating system how you want it to work. And it turns out that there’s a setting inside the registry that can, in effect, be set to say “I want you to work as a Workstation,” or “I want you to work as a Server.”
So whether you buy the Workstation or the Server, you get the same operating system, the same program. The difference is in the registry; one registry says “work as a Workstation,” the other says “work as a Server.”
In fact, O’Reilly & Associates, a publisher whose complaints have prompted a Justice Department investigation, has published the results of a technical review of NT. They found that it’s really quite simple to change a Workstation into a Server, if you know which registry entry to change. (You also need to know “how” to change it – Microsoft added something to stop the entry being changed, though it is possible to circumvent the “lock,” as O’Reilly & Associates did.)
At first glance, what Microsoft is doing may appear to be sneaky – selling the same product in different wrappers for a different price. But this is software, and software is not the same as hardware – shoes, apples, cars and so on. When you buy software, you are really buying an intellectual product; you’re paying for all the work of the programmers and designers.
The fact that they wrapped all the Workstation and Server code into one big package and then used a software switch to turn on certain advanced features – and charge more for those features – could well have been for reasons of efficiency.
(As one Microsoft representative pointed out, you could argue that the only difference between men and women is the Y chromosome – in effect, a software switch. Once the switch has been “thrown,” though, the differences are quite dramatic.)
However, the plot thickens. It turns out that Microsoft originally set up the Workstation version so that if you install a Web server on the operating system – a program that can administer a Web site – only 10 users could connect to the server at any time. In other words, you couldn’t set up more than a very small Web site using the Workstation version – you’d have to upgrade to the Server version, which allows thousands of people to connect at once.
So what happens if you get the Server version? Well, wouldn’t you know it, it comes bundled with a number of “free” extras (Microsoft says that the extra cost of the Server is for its advanced capabilities, and that they’ll throw in certain programs for free). And one of those extras happens to be the new (and reportedly very good) Microsoft Web server (the Internet Information Server, IIS). That’s where O’Reilly comes in; knocking on the door to the Justice Department.
You see, O’Reilly & Associates sells a Web server of its own. And its complaint goes something like this: If someone wants to set up a Web site, and they want to use one of the NT operating systems (and there are very good reasons that they would), they can’t use the Workstation because they are limited, by the license, to 10 users.
So they have to get the Server. But if they get the Server, they also get a free Web server. So where’s that leave O’Reilly and other Web-server publishers? (Out in the cold.)
In effect, O’Reilly claims, Microsoft is trying to make the use of competing software on its operating systems illegal. It is forcing users to buy the Microsoft server instead of a competitor’s server, by waving a restrictive license in the air.
With so much of the market dominated by Microsoft already, it’s no wonder that many people believe Microsoft’s grabs for power are getting out of hand.Peter Kent can be contacted at 71601.1266@compuserve.com.ÿ