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Jean Louis Gassée on the antitrust dog that never barked

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Columnist and author of The BeOS Bible Scot Hacker has published a valedictory for BeOS here at Byte which has some intriguing input from Be founder Jean Louis Gassée.

One of the reasons for the failure of BeOS, Hacker identifies, was the inability to induce OEMs to provide true dual-boot machines. Be adopted a non-confrontational approach, seeking to provide a Windows alternative rather than a replacement. It later produced a version that boots from inside Windows, and it even offered OEMs BeOS for free. However Microsoft OEM contracts forbid a visible dual-boot option, and although OEMs were keen to differentiate themselves by offering Be's "Media OS" as an alternative, they risked breaching the OEM agreements.

When Hitachi took up the challenge, it was obliged to ship a machine that couldonly boot Windows. It couldn't provide one-click access to activate the sleeper OS that was also included on the machine, and couldn't provide similar easy access to install the BeOS bootloader. The result was laborious.

Now for the interesting bit, and listen up you folks who dream of Linux booting on machines from CompUSA.

Gassée offered to testify on behalf of the Department of Justice on the boot loader question, reports Hacker, but the prosecution was only interested in browser integration.

This isn't because the DoJ lacked evidence: OEM contracts, for example from Gateway, formed an important part of its case. And it isn't because the contracts were too sensitive to broach in public: selected portions were used even where the documents were redacted or remained under seal.

No, the DoJ was only apparently interested in the browser case, and Hacker reports that Gassee was thanked for his input on the bootloader, but asked only to testify about browser integration.

"Klein and Boies told Gassée he could testify with focus on the 'malicious intent' aspect of the browser integration question, but not on the bootloader matter," reports Hacker.

However, since Gassée agreed with Microsoft that browser integration was no bad thing, he declined.

Although the prosecution knew and studied the 'WUE', or Windows User Experience portions of the OEM contracts, it declined to examine the bootloader issue, and looked at the WUE for exclusionary browser tactics.

Between 1997, when the DoJ began taking the browser issue seriously, and when the final arguments were made late in 1999, Be was the only competitor whose business solely depended on providing competition to Microsoft on the consumer desktop. It's strange then that it should ignore such compelling evidence of anti-competitive behaviour.

Boot out the Penguin

But the Antitrust staff aren't the only people who are reluctant to grasp the nettle. There's a widespread view in the Linux community that offering head-on competition to Windows on the desktop isn't how Linux will eventually win. The argument has some sound reasoning - it points to historical changes in the economics of the infrastructure, of the sort which saw midrange system replaced client/server PCs - but ducks the difficult question. If you are going to offer consumers an alternative to Windows, you're going to need distribution, and overwhelmingly the least troublesome and most convenient distribution point is a preloaded, pre-configured installation. That means access to the PC's boot sequence.

At the LinuxWorldExpo panel discussion Jeremy Allison made few people comfortable with his point that unless you break the client monopoly, "your alternative infrastructure is irrelevant,"

Very few OEMs can afford not to offer Windows, and while their freedom to offer alternatives is dictated to by the Beast, the alternatives will languish.

DRDOS redux?
DRDOS redux?
[Updated] Contrary to our account, of course, Be retains to the right to pursue anti competitive claims against The Beast. It has little to lose now, and the case ought to be easier to make: Microsoft is now a convicted monopolist, and Hitachi is now longer in the PC OEM business. Thanks to readers for pointing out our goof. ®

Related Link

Byte: He Who Controls The Bootloader

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