13th > December > 1998 Archive

UK Y2K supremo says plan for Armageddon

Could the UK government's Y2K policy get any worse? Until yesterday one would have thought not (Registers passim), but one would have been reckoning without the redoubtable mispeak powers of Action 2000 head Gwynneth Flower, who has issued a statement stressing the need to plan for something close to Armageddon. Flower's earlier greatest hits included musing out loud that Bill Gates could help in dealing with Y2K, see Microsoft's Y2K site and here for why this wasn't a good idea. The aspect of her statement which has - oh yes - caused widespread panic-stricken writing of headlines in the UK's Sunday papers is her advice that every household should lay in two weeks' supply of long-life foodstuffs in preparation for Christmas next year. Flower, it seems clear, is anticipating the possible breakdown of power supplies, transportation, communications systems, cookers, microwave ovens, refrigerators… This is all terribly embarrassing for the British government, which has been (largely) soft-pedalling the potential mega-disaster aspects of Y2K, but which seems to have accidentally appointed a crazed survivalist to look after the details. Flower intends to issue a leaflet next year explaining what sort of things it will be important for people to have in stock, and we'll look forward to that. But in the meantime she might care to browse a few of those helpful Web sites that tell you what to do when law and order and society break down completely, how to defend yourself Communists, perverts and invaders from Tau Ceti, and how to kill with your bare hands. We might be able to help too. The Register's more senior members of staff remember growing up among the debris of the British government's more paranoid wartime constructions. Large air raid shelters that anticipated a Luftwaffe paving of Eastern Scotland that never happened to any great degree, huge blocks of concrete and dragons teeth sprinkled along the coastline, in the odd belief that the Tay Estuary was a prime target for the panzers… Gas masks, spam, blackout curtains, home armies parading with broom handles, dried eggs, melting down iron railings for Spitfires - yes, if we start now, there's still time. ®
John Lettice, 13 Dec 1998

Acer to team with Caldera for Linux XCs?

Acer is poised to make the break from Microsoft with its XC machines, and Linux is a strong candidate for the operating system that at least some of the devices will use, say industry sources. The XC concept is to produce several different ranges of low-cost, specialist and single-purpose appliance-type machines based on the x86.
John Lettice, 13 Dec 1998

New wireless outfit may signpost MS counter-strike

Yet another wireless alliance is due to debut on Tuesday, according to US reports. But with this one Microsoft may be finally giving us an indication of which way (or ways) it intends to jump. Spinmeisters last week were suggesting that Bluetooth was in big trouble because Microsoft wasn't going to join (Click for counterspin). The latest organisation (named the Wireless Ready and Trade Alliance by someone with cloth ears, apparently) is tipped to include WirelessKnowledge, Microsoft's jv company with Qualcomm, as a member. The lead members of the WRTA include AT&T Wireless, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Sierra Wireless, plus HP, Sharp, Casio and Compaq on the hardware side. That little lot makes it pretty clear it's going to be US-centric, with the phone and wireless boys calling the shots on wireless standards and the hardware vendors hoping to benefit from US sales. But there are also clear overlaps and possible clashes with both Bluetooth, the international effort that's starting to look rather European, and HomeRF, the US one that's a sort of Americanised DECT 2. WRTA intends to concentrate on interoperability issues concerning wireless hardware, software and services, and that has obvious attractions to WirelessKnowledge. Despite its control-freak parents this outfit claims to be independently run, and is aiming to offer multi-platform wireless systems that give wireless clients access to BackOffice-type applications. So maybe not that independent after all. (Earlier story) The new group's formation suggests that various overlapping camps are starting to form around short range cable replacement and home networking systems and wireless telephony-related systems. HomeRF can be seen as a sort of competitor to Bluetooth, while WRTA may well clash with WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) Forum. Microsoft is a member of HomeRF, and of WRTA at least by proxy. The Enemy, including Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Symbian, are signed up for WAP, and for Bluetooth. But the sheer complexity of the interlocking memberships makes it clear that rival camps have yet to form up properly. Qualcomm is in Bluetooth and WAP as well, and Compaq is in Bluetooth, WRTA, HomeRF and the GSA (Global Mobile Suppliers Association, a GSM trade body). AMD, one of whose VPs insisted to us earlier this year that wireless could never get cheaper than wired, is nevertheless in Bluetooth and HomeRF. This one will get worse before it gets better. ®
John Lettice, 13 Dec 1998

Oracle favours Open Source for Raw Iron

Oracle's kernel strategy for its Raw Iron database project is starting to take shape, and it seems it has acquired a distinct Open Source look to it. Although the company is due to announce official support for Raw Iron from Sun tomorrow, in addition to the Solaris kernel it has shortlisted FreeBSD, NetBSD and the Linux kernel. US reports suggest that Oracle is also considering HP-UX and Apple's System X, but the word from Oracle in the UK last week was that the company was sticking to four for the moment, so these two are probably on a reserve list, to be used whenever HP or Apple need schmoozing. Raw Iron is Oracle's latest attempt to pry manufacturers and customers away from Microsoft, and so far looks like being more successful than previous efforts. It was announced at Comdex (Earlier story), and is an initiative intended to allow Oracle 8i to run directly on top of a small kernel, so effectively operating as a screamingly fast dedicated database in a box. On announcing it Larry Ellison said he was in discussion with PC manufacturers including Dell and Compaq. Obviously in order to turn these he needs Intel operating software kernels, and at the moment the Open Source ones look like the hot ticket here. The more traditional embedded systems which are forming part of Intel's embedded server appliance strategy may also be candidates, but according to a bunch of Oracle users The Register met on a train from Birmingham last Wednesday, the current four are the only ones Oracle's talking about. Intel itself already has a server appliance using a 486 and VXWorks on the market (Launch story), and last week rolled out a fan club of supporters for its projected Server Appliance Design Guide. These include Bull, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent, Nortel, Novell, Oracle and SCO. So there's obvious some potential for overlap with Raw Iron, and look how MS-free the list is too. Intel's guidelines won't be finished until the middle of next year though, whereas Ellison's intention is to have the first Raw Iron systems out in Q1. ®
John Lettice, 13 Dec 1998

Big South Korean semiconductor deal in tatters

A proposed merger between LG Semicon and Hyundai to create a single powerful semiconductor firm looks set to fall apart this week, despite the appointment of a US company to broker an agreement. Lee Hun-jai, chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) is quoted today in two local newspapers as saying that both LG Semicon and Hyundai are bth insisting they can go it alone in the market. But that is likely to irritate South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who has insisted thaat the two chaebols (family firms) get that particular act together. Mr Lee is reported as saying that the “widely different corporate cultures” of the companies would prevent the integration of their semiconductor business but blamed LG for dragging its feet on the merger. Hyundai, on the other hand, had supported Wall Street consultancy Arthur D. Little on its plans, Lee is reported as saying. The two could face financial penalties from the government for their recalcitrance. Meanwhile, LG Electronics in the UK is expected to announce its plans for a restructuring during the course of this week, as reported here earlier. ®
A staffer, 13 Dec 1998

Analysis: Selling the Web to Bill

Ben Slivka is one of the finds of the Microsoft antritrust action - he turns a mean quote ("grow the polluted Java"), but he has a mind as well. Back in May 1995, Slivka produced a long, carefully thought out memo that showed he'd grasped where the Internet was headed, and proposing strategies Microsoft could use to benefit from it. Slivka's memo is entitled The Web is the Next Platform (no messing about here) and is DoJ exhibit 21. From the point of view of killer incriminating quotes it's thin stuff, but it shows where Microsoft's thinking was at in mid-1995. Slivka is of course aware of how Microsoft can leverage its way into a dominant position, as is evident from this: "We should support all of the key Internet standards and become key suppliers of Internet technology to all comers. In parallel, we should be extending the Web with as many Microsoft technologies as possible, even if we have to modify those technologies in ways not originally intended by their designers." That's what Bill and his spin doctors would call a snippet, and in Slivka's 17 page document there's virtually no other reference to the process of modifying standards out of the public domain and into Microsoft's back pocket. But then, Slivka is assessing what's going wrong, and trying to define the way forward, so he's not likely to be placing too much emphasis on what is essentially a traditional and mechanical Microsoft process. The most striking feature of the memo is that Slivka clearly grasps the subject far more firmly than Gates did in a memo sent the day before (Gates discovers Internet tidal wave). By 27th May 1995 Slivka is on version 5 of the document, so we can presume that if Bill Gates read an earlier version, he didn't understand it. Nor indeed does Slivka seem to understand the implications of what he's saying completely. He leads in with "The Web is an application platform (complete with APIs, data formats, and protocols) that threatens Windows." He later talks about producing a "universal viewer" and recommends a model where "the default application model is a 'dumb' client and 'smart' server, returning to the mainframe model of the past - except that the client is much more capable than a 3270 terminal." So he identifies the Web correctly as a threat to Microsoft because of its nature as an application platform, but fails to grasp that he's basically recommending Microsoft adopt a thin client/server strategy. As we've seen since, this has potentially fatal implications for Microsoft's revenue model, and his recommendation that Microsoft "Make Windows the best client platform" seems wishful thinking when lined up beside the evidence in favour of future Sun, Oracle and IBM plans he produces. Slivka nearly gets there by inventing the NC concept. Bill Gates himself had referred to it in his memo the day before, so it was clearly an issue for Microsoft. Says Slivka: "My nightmare scenario is that the Web grows into a rich application platform in an operating system-neutral way, and the a company like Siemens or Matsushita comes out with a $500 "WebMachine" that attaches to a TV… When faced with the choice between a $500 box (Risc CPU, 4-8 megabyte RAM, no hard disk…) and a $2k Pentium/P6 Windows machine, the two thirds of [US] homes that don't have a PC may find the $500 machine pretty attractive!" Indeed - change the numbers around a little and that's precisely the threat Microsoft faces today. But although he defines the nature of the problem clearly, he doesn't push much further. In 1995, was it perhaps career death in Microsoft to question the ascendancy of the PC? Slivka's smart about a lot of other stuff, so it's odd that he doesn't nail this one properly. In the document, he's obviously pitching a plan to get Microsoft out of a losing strategy, and he goes in soft initially. "There was a time when we thought that we could just 'build it and they will come' with MSN, hence all the non-Internet technologies we developed (Marvel RPC, incompatible Mail & News protocols, MOSView etc.) for MSN. These technology choices were unfortunate, for (in hindsight) I think it is clear that MSN would have been much further along now if we had started from the existing Web and enhanced it." Slivka is trying, gently, to tell the High Command that Microsoft has screwed-up big time. MSN isn't going to work, Microsoft needs to embrace the Web - but he's doing it diplomatically, so he clearly expects resistance. Here he tries to intercept some more of it: "It is possible that if Microsoft forges ahead with its current MSN plan (Blackbird, OLE everywhere, COM/DCOM etc.) and only pays the Internet lip service, we may 'pull a Windows' and end up dominating the online world. All of these other players will spend all of their time bickering about IETF standards and shipping incompatible extensions, and the Internet will end up a mish-mash of incompatible solutions." He's good this guy, isn't he? But here's how he tries to hit the bosses' hot button: "On the other hand, it is also possible that some company will 'pull a Windows' by taking a leadership position of enhancing the Web… We have to assume that at least some of our competitors have figured out how Windows won, and are trying to recreate that strategy on the Web." He's really good, this guy… As it happened, Microsoft's Internet strategy did turn in this period, and given the floundering Gates exhibited in his review from the same period, it does look rather like Slivka was the one who engineered the turn. It turns out this smart cookie is ex-OS/2: "When I reflect on some of our previous 'big bang' efforts - OS/2 and LanMan - the key mistake we made was not to focus on compatibility enough. With OS/2 (where I spent my first 5.5 years at Microsoft, working primarily on MS-DOS compatibility), we didn't support all MS-DOS applications, and we didn't support any MS-DOS device drivers… Regardless of all the cool, sexy features in OS/2 (multi-tasking, better graphics API, memory protection), it was not a no brainer upgrade from MS-DOS… Only with Windows 95 (where we have focused on compatibility to an amazing extent) are we finally going to enable to [sic] move customers away from MS-DOS." As a side issue, it's worth noting that the above paragraph suggests that Microsoft took OS/2 seriously at least for a period - Slivka views its failure as a Microsoft mistake, and sees the error as being useful evidence to support his pitch. He makes the same point about LanMan: "We told customers they had to toss their existing Novell networks in order to run LanMan and they would have to accept slower performance from LanMan… With Windows NT and Windows 95 embracing NetWare, we're finally starting to gain some ground here." Having - he hopes - got the high command's attention, he next needs to turn the tanker. The current MSN-related project, Blackbird, needs to be canned. "If we have the resource to continue pursuing the original Blackbird viewer/server design without impacting our Web publishing efforts, that's fine." He argues that by building "client, server, protocols and (some) data formats from the ground up" Microsoft will be repeating the OS/2 and LanMan goofs. He touches on the big advantage of MSN for Microsoft, secure payment. This was what seemed to force Gates to cling to MSN, so it's a tricky one. Microsoft has to sacrifice something where it can see how it can make money, for something (the Web) that doesn't have obvious revenue streams. But proprietary is tricky. If Microsoft sticks with this, "if we force information providers to make a choice between creating great Web content or great MSN content, they may choose the former." And he swipes at OLE. He tries to be diplomatic (internal politics) but fails. "Using OLE as a fundamental Framework adds Complexity/Size, reduces speed… If OLE were not complicated, fat and slow it would be wonderful." So MSN has to be given radical surgery, and OLE everywhere has to be shot, along with Blackbird. "A more gradual approach of starting from existing technology and enhancing it (as I'm suggesting in this memo) has proven in the past (Windows) to be more successful than a Big Bang approach (as with OS/2, Lan Manager, Exchange?)." Slivka ends the overview section (the first half of the document) by describing his preferred Universal Client and server system, and then proceeds to explain how it will work in detail. Microsoft did turn in the direction he suggested, but didn't take the universal client to its logical, generic and not exclusively Windows, conclusion. From the point of view of internal politics that was probably impossible. ® Complete Register trial coverage
John Lettice, 13 Dec 1998