Novell's MS complaint: we wuz robbed

That antitrust filing in full - with added chocolate

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Analysis If the antitrust lawsuit that Novell filed against Microsoft comes to court, it will reopen long-forgotten battles over technologies that most of us will even have trouble remembering. One of the few to survive is WordPerfect itself, the software at the core of the claim. A new version turned up on the shelves of CompUSA a few weeks ago, although it's many years since it earned its owner money.

So, is it sour grapes from Novell; or is the company owed its due after some of the nastiest, and most childish tactics the software business has ever seen? Microsoft's reward from winning the desktop franchise has run into many tens of billions of dollars.

Novell evidently thinks it is. Lawyers representing the companies had talked for over a year and had settled on everything but the WordPerfect Suite issue by last Monday. A week ago Microsoft agreed to pay Novell over half a billion dollars for, in effect, killing its NetWare for NT product. But in the document filed in a Utah court, Novell's allegations fall into two main categories: that Microsoft withheld technical information that it used to its own advantage, and that it unfairly leveraged its commercial relationship with PC makers to make Novell's offerings far less attractive.

In the context of the larger conflict between the two - Microsoft's baby-faced Bugsy Malone actors had already targeted Novell for a splurge gun shooting - the office affair was brief. The Utah company picked up the WordPerfect Corporation and the rights to Borland's Quattro Pro in the space of a year, for $840m, to add to Unixware and DR DOS. But by the end of 1996 Novell had called it quits, selling the office products to Corel, Unix to SCO, and retiring DR DOS with its Caldera spin off. What happened?

"Microsoft literally paid its distributors to stop doing business with competitors such as Novell," the suit claims. OEMs at the time received strong financial inducements for promising not to bundle or sell rival's software products. Microsoft's notorious per-processor licensing conditions for Windows earned OEMs an extra discount. OEMs were required to pay royalties upfront into a pot and if they failed to meet the agreed quota, Microsoft kept hold of the money. Many OEMs ran up several of these bookie bills - which a wireless operator would call a "prepay account" - running at any one time, some in credit, some in deficit.

Novell also includes direct sales as one of the channels in which it was thwarted, but doesn't explain how Microsoft prevented Novell or its distributors from selling its own software directly. It leaves us to infer that its channel partners couldn't then find an OEM who could ship a box to a customer because of the OEM's exclusive commitments to Microsoft - but that's a story that hasn't been told yet.

Many more of the allegations are purely technical.

Novell says that WordPerfect for Windows was running late to begin with, because the company had been repeatedly told by Microsoft that OS/2 was its preferred successor to DOS. But as 1990 dawned, it was the industry's worst kept secret that Microsoft had renewed its focus on Windows 3.0. (IBM and Microsoft had come to an awkward positioning agreement in September 1989 but divorce, and the all-out OS/2 vs Windows war didn't really begin until 1991). Windows 3.0 betas had been circulating for months before its splashy launch in summer 1990, by which time work on WordPerfect for Windows was underway. Few people used Windows then except, perhaps, as a run time environment for PageMaker. In terms of functionality, with no scalable fonts and hardly any printer drivers, Windows 3.0 wasn't much better: but it was better received in recession-stricken IT departments than it was in the press.

A smaller developer would have more right to be aggrieved, but the market leader WordPerfect was already running on several different platforms and so at the very least, an insurance policy would have prudent for the company. This isn't the strongest part of Novell's suit, and they don't dwell too long here.

What's up, OpenDoc?

Novell also alleges that its investment in the OpenDoc component technology was scuttled by exclusory technical conduct and certification requirements Microsoft created for its own OLE. It's doubtful if anything has useful remains from the OLE vs OpenDoc war at all. Novell is correct to point out that Microsoft's behemoth was ungainly, inferior and vastly over-engineered causing many a hard disk to expire before its time. OLE required an EMACs-sized commitment from the developer, but delivered only edlin-sized benefits. But it's stretching the imagination to claim, as Novell does, that OpenDoc would have been the de facto API for the Internet and, well, everywhere:

"If OpenDoc is adopted by the Internet, it will be a de facto standard on all major OS platforms, and execute a brilliant end-run around Microsoft's strangehold on Windows," reckons a Component Integration Labs marketing plan from 9 February, 1995. But CIL never really tried, and even Microsoft had a hard time getting its component technology - rebranded as ActiveX - taken seriously.

However there's little to quibble with the long list of technical frustrations that Novell suffered. Other desktop application competitors, not yet marked for death and their churches for destruction, didn't suffer as uniquely.

Microsoft denied Novell developers documentation for features as basic as the clipboard, prevented Novell's file manager from taking over the desktop by retracting documentation, hid help APIs and obfuscated the Rich Text file format. Windows system DLLs, on which all developers depended, were changed frequently without the changes being documented. There's little point to having a well documented public API when circumventing its limitations offer such great competitive advantages. Microsoft had already vowed, during the FTC investigation, to maintain "Chinese walls". But whispers kept getting through.

For example, Novell developers found that Windows' 64kb resource heaps for menus and dialog boxes in WordPerfect were quickly exhausted - while Microsoft's Office applications had no such problems. They discovered that Microsoft was calling an undocumented API, the Dialog Box Manager, which Microsoft ensured stayed undocumented. Gradually the ability of Novell to keep up with, let alone differentiate itself from, Microsoft Office, diminished.

"Because the standards were lifted directly from Microsoft's own applications, those applications, by definition, were always 'compatible' with the standards," says Novell.

So hard luck, or hard cheese?

Ten years on, Microsoft's Office business is a money-printing machine, with profits of around 90 per cent even when the cost of employing so many layers of bloggers and other marketing types has been taken into account. Novell clearly feels its a case worth pursuing. Other software developers were able to thrive for a while with high quality Windows software (Borland, before it was targeted for destruction), but none was singled out for such special treatment as Novell, and all missed the windfall profits that resulted in losing out on the desktop franchise. Novell bought an already profitable business, which needed to undertake a critical port smoothly. Its case is much stronger than Netscape's later case was, or at least, the potential damages could be much higher.

It's a shame that District Court judges simply assume that the advance of technology brings with it progress, and don't take aesthetic or even utilitarian considerations into account. We were going to conclude with a cheap gag about WordPerfect for Windows' button bar. Novell's antitrust filing makes a reference to WordPerfect's "more widely admired 'button bar'" being unfairly thwarted by Microsoft's toolbar. Your reporter remembered a promotional event for WordPerfect for Windows in 1991 where the company gave out a piece of tasteless chocolate called, you got it - the Button Bar - which was fairly inedible.

If you're running Microsoft Word for Windows 2003, right click to bring up the Customize dialog box, got to Options, check the 'Large Icons' tickbox and click OK. See how much tastier toolbars have gotten since? ®

Related stories

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