December 1999

Microsoft is having a party next week. Maybe I'll crash the party and find out how the other half lives.

Of course, it's not a "real" party. Microsoft is coming to town, and putting on a little demonstration of Windows 2000. You know, the software built on Windows NT, but with the name changed to make people think it's part of the Windows 9X family. What's more, it's the software that takes away the DOS prompt in order to remove your ability to run critical DOS applications in your business.

What does Microsoft call this? INNOVATION. So what else is new?

By now, some of you may be wondering what all of this has to do with OS/2. It means a great deal to OS/2, provided we take advantage of the potential upheaval involved. Look at things from the perspective of a software developer in the DOS/Windows world. Microsoft's previous efforts have been geared to keep developers in the Microsoft fold, making Microsoft the platform with the greatest variety of up-to-date native applications by consistently focusing on backwards compatibility (to the grave detriment of reliability). To do this, Microsoft made sure that the shaky foundation of Windows was DOS itself. They also made sure that Windows 3.1 APIs were firmly embedded into each version of Windows, so as to maximize the likelihood that a Windows software developer could keep selling his or her product, as could a DOS software developer. No need for them to explore alternative platforms, with the money continuing to come in regularly as Microsoft tightened its grip on the OS marketplace.

However, all that is about to change. Now that Microsoft has marginalized all non-Microsoft desktop operating systems, their next goal is obvious: marginalize all non-Microsoft desktop applications, too. Thus, a software developer will have to make one of the following choices in order to survive:

1. Jump in with Microsoft even deeper, signing yet another onerous, exclusionary "you show me yours and I'll show you mine" code agreement;

2. Seriously investigate alternative software platforms, but suddenly without any revenue stream;

3. Gamble that he/she has the hackers in-house to figure out how to re-engineer their applications for compatibility with Windows 2000's new API restrictions. (Unpublished, of course!)

Well, all of this decision-making will begin hitting the fan sometime in the spring of next year, when Microsoft begins to push Windows2000 as the replacement not just for WindowsNT but for Windows9X as well. Sure, there is still work ongoing with yet another decrepit DOS-based Windows system, but that is only a fail-safe in case Windows2000 proves to be unacceptable on the consumer desktop. Microsoft is planning to convert everybody over to systems that cannot run DOS or Windows 3.1 applications as soon as possible, especially since more and more alternative platforms allow at least some such applications a safe haven. (Caldera DOS, anyone? Wabi? Project Odin?)

When this happens, it may be too late to use the leverage we have right now. Yes, right now would be the IDEAL TIME for OS/2 software development houses such as Sundial, Stardock, and the smaller shops to begin approaching vendors of DOS applications, and perhaps even Windows 3.1 applications, and cut deals for access to the source code of these soon-to-be "legacy" products. That includes smaller applications dedicated to such vertical markets as lawyers, doctors, accountants, and other computerized professionals.

What sort of terms could be involved here? Obviously there should be continued rights to the entire product, even without the source code. This would allow adventurous independent developers to continue to pursue the Windows2000 market. Simply being able to offer a product with file-format compatibility would be a great boon to both OS/2 users hungry for more applications, the vendors desiring to squeeze out a few more years of income from their "doomed" products, and also to the current users of these products who do not relish the idea of spending thousands of dollars to outfit their offices with new computers in order to run Windows2000 -- as well as the new software applications that may be required. Yes, even without the source code itself, these products may find a useful afterlife on the OS/2 platform. These rights must necessarily include full updates to any file formats or other protocols.

Even better would be access to the source code itself, to ensure continued growth and innovation of these products. This would add an extra degree of comfort for potential converts to the OS/2 platform as an "escape valve" from the Windows 2000 money-grab treadmill which is about to kick into high gear. The fees paid could be per-unit, or per-product, or some combination of both; perhaps a reciprocal agreement could be offered to provide copies of bug-fixes or innovations generated by the OS/2 developers back to the original software companies.

But barring this sort of agreement, an all-out blitz in favor of open-sourcing these "doomed" DOS and Windows applications should be started. It should take place NOW, before Microsoft comes a-calling with their motley crew of legal sharks, spinmeisters, and glad-handing showmen. Whether the code is licensed, bought outright, or simply released to the general developer community, the hard work and innovations provided by thousands of small software companies must not be abandoned simply because the Black Hole of Redmond needs another shovel-full of blood money.

Most recent revision: November 25, 1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.