On MP3, HPC and having vs. eating cake

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton reflects on Microsoft’s settlement with AOL in the browser wars—where an anti trust settlement has effectively killed off the competition. Some of the arguments Microsoft used in this case—the coupling of the browser with the operating system make it hard to believe that Windows’ design is modular enough for high performance computing.

As a technology writer I little expected that, in the comfort of my own office, my own PC would suddenly jump up and surprise me in a semi-magical way. I had just popped in a music CD into the drive and was listening to Bjork’s dulcet tones belting out from my total overkill sound system that usually gives me a headache after five minutes. Midway through track 3—i.e. rather near the beginning of the CD, I was amazed to see the drive pop open and eject the media—while the music carried on playing!

Black magic

Not as I first thought, black magic, but just new software from RealAudio whose default behavior is not just to play a music CD, but to compress and record each track in real time onto your disk. What is played back is the MP3. But because the compression and writing to disk overtakes the real time stream, the disc is ejected well before you are through with the record. Neat stuff!


Not only is it neat stuff, it is free stuff. And not only is it neat and free, RealAudio is at the heart of the protracted battle between Microsoft and the rest of the world as to what is ‘fair’ and what is not in competitive software development and marketing. OK, this may be a twisted way of introducing an editorial on Microsoft’s predatory or otherwise practices, but holidays loom, frivolity is in the air what?


In an ideal world, this editorial would have walked you through the legal arguments which have led various plaintiffs in the form of US corporations, some States and the European Union to accuse Microsoft of beating up on the competition. I propose to spare you this and offer a rather succinct account which no doubt omits many of the fine and not so fine points—heck this is an editorial after all.


A crucial aspect of the case against Microsoft was the bundling of Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system. This was claimed by Microsoft’s adversaries—notably by America Online’s Netscape unit—to ‘violate two sections of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act’ (legal research on-the-fly from Google!). Netscape argued that to allow a modicum of competition—in short to give Netscape a chance, Microsoft should un-bundle the browser from the OS. Microsoft replied, initially at least, that the technologies of browser and OS were so imbricated that this was impossible.

Go figure!

Earlier this year, the browser part of the anti-trust suit was ‘settled’ when Microsoft agreed to pay AOL $750 million along with a ‘royalty-free’ license to use its (free) Internet Explorer technology! An anti-trust settlement that has killed off the remaining competition and left Microsoft with a complete monopoly of the browser market. As they say, ‘go figure’.


OK, that’s water under the bridge, but what’s this I see at the edge of the stream? A thread—something for an editor to pull on and unravel—viz. in Microsoft’s argument that the browser is somehow inevitably coupled to the OS, that technology obliges it to sell both together—along with it’s competition for RealAudio, Windows Media Player—the object of the current EU legal challenge.

Design principles

This thread is particularly worth pulling on because good IT design principles—of the sort that allow the Internet or telephone system to function—dictate that software should be decoupled and layered. That applications like browsers should be built and sold independently of the OS.


A good example of good software design is Unix (or Linux if you will)—where the windowing system is completely disconnected from the OS. At The Data Room, we have a Linux server running in text mode as an internet test bed and Samba file server. No windows at all. In fact the Unix design principles take this a step further, with a minimalist kernel performing the essentials of the OS, and a multiplicity of modules which can be linked—or more likely not—depending on your requirements.


Thus if you are a Cisco, you take the Unix kernel and strip out all the stuff you don’t need, call the result a router and launch a zillion dollar world-beating corporation. Or more prosaically, if you are a seismic processing house, you chuck out X-Windows, and probably a bunch of other stuff that is normally included in Linux and build a supercomputer.


Which brings me finally to the question of the month. What does Microsoft have to offer high performance computing? To take the behemoth literally, if you really need Internet Explorer to ‘run Windows’ or if you even need Windows to run Windows, then having these frills installed on every machine in a 5,000 cpu cluster is clearly an unwelcome overhead.


The unfortunate truth may be that Microsoft has been hoist by its own IT petard. By embedding this in that, creating a ‘compelling’ solution for its marketing effort, clients who have bought one widget are inextricably drawn to the next. Good commerce from bad design.


But the inextricability of Microsoft’s solutions make its move into HPC (see our report on page 8) a little hard to believe. Something to do with having and eating cake maybe?

New sponsor-contributed material from PGS Tigress and a paper on migrating upstream computing to Linux by Anadarko’s Will Morse.

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