OS News

26 Feb 1998

Browsers, Cars, and Windows95: Why Microsoft's Story Won't Hold Up

By Weston Cann

If anyone suggested to me that removing my car stereo would render my car inoperable, I would think they were dishonest  
Microsoft stated that removing Internet Explorer would render Windows inoperable  
The lines in the computing world actually are a little more blurry here than they are in the automotive world  
You can't argue that removing an application involves removing all the software components it depends on  

My car stereo died this week. It's showed signs of illness for a month or two, but this week it became apparent that if I want to listen to cassettes or the radio while I drive anymore, I'm going to have to replace it.

At least, I'm pretty sure it's something in the radio. I supposed it could be something in the electrical system... the battery, the alternator, a short in some wiring somewhere. I don't think the problem's outside of the stereo, though, because the rest of the car seems to run fine. The headlights shine, the dashboard is lit, and everything goes well when it's time to start things up and drive.

In other words, I understand that the operation of my car radio is dependant upon certain other components of the car. If any of these components isn't there, my car radio won't work properly. In fact, if these other components are missing or fail to operate properly, my entire car might too.

But if anyone suggested to me that removing my car stereo would render my car inoperable, I would think they were misinformed, if not dishonest. Perhaps akin to a crooked mechanic who tries to sell you repairs you don't need.

Really, it'd be quite an outlandish statement to make. Sure, it's true that there are components of the car that the stereo depends on in order to function. But that doesn't mean the relationship works the other way. It doesn't make them part of the stereo.

To many people, this immediately makes sense. To others... well, they need a way to decide what constitutes a separate component of these complex vehicles we drive around in. One could learn to distinguish these components from one another by sight -- you can look and see that they battery is not part of the stereo. And one could also learn to distinguish them by function: an alternator transforms a vehicle's motion a battery stores charge, and a stereo transforms radio waves into sounds you can hear. Since they perform different functions, they're different objects.

Now I know what you're thinking: if it's so easy to separate the components of a car in this way, making it obvious the operation of the rest of the car isn't dependant on the operation of the stereo, why would anyone claim that it is? Honestly folks, I don't think I've ever seen anyone do this with a car and a stereo. Even if they could get away with it, there are few dealers that would even benefit from the claim.

But I have heard a similar claim from a software manufacturer.

As most of America has heard (and as much of the technical world is tired of hearing), Microsoft is attempting to defend itself from allegations of wide array of anti-competitive behavior. In defiance of a recent court order, stating that Microsoft must refrain from distributing Internet Explorer Web Browser with its Windows operating system, the Redmond WA software company stated that removing Internet Explorer would render Windows inoperable. Translation: Microsoft wants everyone to believe that some vehicle of computing (their operating system) will cease to function without a communications device that can be included with it.

Now, the lines in the computing world actually are a little more blurry here than they are in the automotive world. It's not so easy to just look and see what separates one software component from another. But Microsoft's argument bears quite a bit of resemblance to a weak attempt to justify calling a car stereo an integral part of an automobile.

It essentially revolves around the idea that the Internet Explorer Browser consists of an application that controls a user interface. However, for much of its actual functionality, IE relies on several other software components. Some of these software components are also used by other applications -- in fact, some are system wide resources, available to any application that wants to use them. As such, Microsoft reasons, these components are part of the operating system.

They're right. Where the argument takes a decidedly fishy turn is the part where they continue to argue that these software components are still part of Internet Explorer. Because you can't have it both ways. Once something is part of the operating system, it's really not part of the application anymore. Once a battery starts supplying power to parts of the car other than the stereo, it's no longer part of the stereo, but rather, a part of the overall car system.

With this understanding, removing Internet Explorer could not possibly render Windows inoperative, because you'd have to leave those software components other applications rely upon. Just as you can't argue that to remove a car stereo means removing the battery, you can't argue that removing such an application -- even one such as Internet Explorer -- involves removing all the software components it depends on.

I'm not really sure why Microsoft expects anyone to believe this. Maybe they really believe it themselves. Perhaps this strange attempt to confuse their browser with their operating system comes because with the era of the Internet already here, a clear separation of computing and communication may never happen again. It's true that from now on, having a computer without a communications software for email, web browsing and the like will be even less fun than having a car without a stereo.

But even so, the argument about the separation between the application and operating system stands. Perhaps Microsoft should be regarded with the same suspicion one might regard a mechanic who suggests repairs you don't need.

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