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Paul Ferris -- Microsoft and De-commoditization - Will History Repeat Itself?

May 30, 1999, 11:37 (38 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

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By Linux Today writer Paul Ferris

Well folks, I think we can definitely see that we are now in stage three of Ghandi's mantra. Microsoft is throwing rocks at Linux. We are officially at war. By studying the Halloween Papers  we know that part of their war plans involve "de-commoditizing" existing protocols. This equates to making them more proprietary.

It's deja-vu for those of us who remember IBM and the clone wars. Let me review that history, it compares to the market of today in many ways.

In the early 1980's, IBM opened up the specifications for their bus architecture so that 3rd party expansion card manufacturers could make adaptor boards for it's newly introduced personal computer - the IBM PC. The vestiges of that bus can still be found today on most Intel (and Intel clone) based PC motherboards. The story in-between seems to have been mostly forgotten. It's the story of the Microchannel. The parallels to today are striking.

Shortly after IBM released the bus specifications, companies found that they could reverse engineer the motherboard, and make more than just cards - they could make the computer itself. IBM was selling PC's in huge quantities, but watched with horror as clone sales increased.

What to do? IBM created a new bus specification - the Microchannel. It had a ton of patents on it, and it was a vast improvement over the 16-bit bus design we now call ISA. They growled at the clone vendors, daring them to clone it. IBM was the hardware standard setting company of the time. If they introduced new hardware, people were expected to buy it. At least that, or it's clone counterparts. But IBM was changing the rules. They were saying "We will now be the only PC hardware source." They did introduce specifications for the adaptor cards although not many companies showed a lot of interest.

It was right around that time that a gang of hardware manufactures introduced a new specification for an extended bus - the EISA bus. In essence, a bunch of competitors to IBM got together, and drafted a new spec that introduced a new bus that was based in part on the old one. This is what IBM should have done, if they really wanted to improve things. But IBM was more interested at the time in re-capturing their old market - they wanted to monopolize a free market. They wanted to take back what the clone vendors had taken.

To IBM's credit, they did allow motherboards under license, but it was a bit restrictive. Only one or two companies really tried to do it, and they were not success stories by far.

The problems for this new adoption were many. If someone was "upgrading" to the IBM PS/2 architecture, they would have to scrap all hardware based on ISA cards. New Microchannel based counterparts would have to be purchased - if they were available. IBM pricing at the time was fairly high in comparison to the PC clone marketplace. The variety of ISA based cards was high. Now IBM was asking those manufacturers to base their new designs upon a proprietary specification. IBM wanted to take the market back with the burden of the expense for the migration being placed upon the customers and vendors.

Compare this to today, with Microsoft's threats to "de-commoditize" open protocols. Let's use the Server Message Block protocol (SMB) as an example. It's this protocol that Samba speaks along with Windows NT server, to provide file system services to Microsoft and Linux clients.

Microsoft is mad as hell because they want to own the server space. They want people to buy Windows NT Server to serve files to PC's. The problem - SMB protocol is essentially open (although disgustingly complex, but that's another story). SMB protocol is based upon lan manager protocol, with extensions that Microsoft added. In other words, it appears that "de-commoditization" has already been somewhat attempted, but reverse engineered by the Samba team in places.

SMB protocol is very much like the ISA bus. The clone marketplace is very much like the NT server marketplace. And Microsoft appears very much like IBM in an attempt to convert a free market to a proprietary monopolized one.

I remember this fight well. A lot of PC magazines of the time predicted that the clone market would disappear. The new architecture was faster, and IBM owned it. Although I'm leaving out one of the important items: OS/2, this paradigm maps surprisingly well.

Let's not forget that "de-commoditizing", whether or not it brings improvement of some kind, essentially results in removing choice from the consumer marketplace. Can they "de-commoditize" SMB?  It would be a stupid idea, since the Common Internet File System (CIFS) protocol is based upon SMB.

I wouldn't put it past them, in other words.

So, what do you think? Will de-commoditizing protocols work in an open marketplace? I know where I stand. Three of my expansion cards in my present computer are ISA based.