An interview with Brian Livingston

As a contributing editor of InfoWorld and author of several best selling books, Brian Livingston is in a unique position to make a difference for Windows users. Through his constant interaction with the people that actually use Windows day-to-day, Livingston has used his weekly column to publicize the good, bad and indifferent about everyone's favorite operating system while supplying a bevy of much-needed tips, tricks, and workarounds to Windows' biggest problems. He has published a number of user-oriented books through IDG, including best sellers Windows 3.1 Secrets, Windows 95 Secrets, and Windows 98 Secrets, which provide readers with a natural extension of his work in InfoWorld.

Brian's latest book, Windows 2000 Professional Secrets, hits the streets this week. Since this is the first time he's written about Microsoft's business operating system, I sat down with Brian in my hometown of Dedham, Massachusetts to discuss his new book, the Microsoft trial, and other issues related to Windows. And, what the heck, a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with Windows at all. It was that kind of day.

WinInfo (Paul Thurrott): Just in way of background, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Brian Livingston: My weekly column in InfoWorld has been running for over nine years now, simultaneously I was writing a monthly column in PC Computing and Windows Sources magazine, which is now out of business. Lately, I've been concentrating on writing books and the InfoWorld columns, which keeps me pretty busy.

W: Tell me about your new book, Windows 2000 Professional Secrets.

BL: This is the ninth book I've authored or co-authored. I'm not a network administrator anymore… \[for Secrets\] we've grilled beta testers about what they know. It's not trying to be an A to Z encyclopedia. We've written a book that's going to cover anyone that uses Windows 2000 Professional or Server and the features that are common to both. Another group of writers has written a book that covers Server administration. This book is for users--real people. Microsoft says that there are 58 million users of NT now. So those people are going to be upgrading to Windows 2000 this year, next year, whenever.

W: Your previous books covered Windows 3.x and 9x; what made you decide to jump over to NT/2000?

BL: The choice to do a Windows NT book came about because the market has grown so much. IDC projected that 50 million copies of Windows 2000 will be sold in the next 12 months, compared to 100 million for Windows 98. So it's not a 10-to-1 ration anymore, it's 2-to-1.

W: What do you think of Windows Me ("Millennium Edition") and Microsoft's change in plans for the consumer market?

BL: You know about Windows M.E.--I kind of refuse to call it "Windows Me"--It's funny, Windows 98 should be upgrading to a product whose name has numbers in it, not letters. And of course, Windows NT should be upgrading to a product that has letters in its name, not numbers. But they're not. So it's very confusing for the consumer. A year ago, Microsoft thought they could ship a consumer version of Window 2000 and that's not the case. About 75% of the games that run on Windows 98 won't run on Windows 2000, according to Microsoft and the people we've talked to. I've had a hard time finding Windows 2000 compatible drivers for a surprising number of products. More hardware and software just works under Windows 98.

W: What about Whistler and Microsoft's post-Windows 2000 plans?

BL: If they can merge the Windows NT code-base with the consumer needs, I think that's about a 2002 product. And supposedly Windows "Whistler" will solve this consumer problem and they'll only be selling one version of Windows. It should scale itself up and down. It will be nice to finally just tell people "Windows is Windows" and not explain that, for example, Windows 2000 is not an upgrade for Windows 98. Right now, Windows NT/2000 and 98 are sort of parallel universes.

W: As far as Whistler goes, do you think this is a case of Windows NT being made compatible for consumers or is Microsoft simply letting enough time go by so that consumer-level equipment is powerful enough that it can finally run NT? Now that Windows 2000 supports USB and more modern devices, has NT finally caught up?

BL: We say in the book that 64 MB of RAM is not enough to run Windows 2000; you need 96 MB as a starting point, preferably 128. We've basically shown that Windows 2000 performs best at 128 MB and that after you add more RAM above that, it doesn't make a difference. So 128 MB is the sweet spot: If you've got 128 MB of RAM, there's nothing you can't do with Windows 2000 \[Professional\]. But the drivers are a big concern because Windows 98 includes all the drivers you'll need and manufacturers ship 98 drivers in the box. But with Windows 2000…there are missing drivers. And these things should never happen in a consumer operating system. Microsoft needs to have that worked out in advance. So I don't know if they're waiting for RAM to get cheaper and for 128 MB to be the standard for new machines. Or whether they're waiting to have better driver and game support. Two years from now, the game vendors will have revved their titles for Windows 2000 compatibility.

W: Why was Windows 2000 constantly delayed? Do you think that Microsoft bit off more than they could chew?

BL: They always bites off more than they can chew.

W: (Laughing) Right. This one seems like such a monumental upgrade, not so much in Professional, but especially in Server with Active Directory, IntelliMirror, and the manageability stuff. Did they pull it off?

BL: Well, our focus over the past twelve months has been with the \[Windows 2000\] beta testers: Microsoft's developers give us information, but they tend to be a little more tight-lipped. Active Directory is very complex. It's like the automatic transmission on a car: the more complex the transmission is, the easier it is to drive the car. I don't think Active Directory is acceptable right now. The beta testers--who are administering big shops, like Ford Motor Company--say that it's too difficult. Technologically, and from a marketing standpoint, Microsoft has fallen behind. When they were focused on revving Internet Explorer to wipe out Netscape, they seemed to have less competition in the server market. But now Sun's come out with a version of Solaris that runs on 64 processors, while Microsoft's Datacenter Server does only 32. Microsoft claims that Windows 2000 handles more with 32 processors than Sun does with 64, but I bet Sun disagrees. Microsoft doesn't have to have the best server OS, they just need to compete. And Linux is growing in marketshare. It remains to be seen whether Windows 2000 will grow or simply maintain its position. They may need to do another rev of Windows 2000 pretty quickly, say within a year.

W: So who should upgrade to Windows 2000?

BL. The funny thing is, I think there are a lot of people that are going to be tricked into buying Windows 2000 because Microsoft is doing this insane campaign that's informing the general public how great Windows 2000 is. It looks just like the next version of Windows 98. There are things that people are going to get into trouble with if they upgrade Windows 98 to Windows 2000. I'm not saying that everyone has to get Windows 2000. No, everyone does not have to get Windows 2000. It's for companies that have network administrators. Those people are going to want Windows 2000 as soon as possible. It might not be good enough to change over from Linux or Solaris, but Microsoft shops should be breathing a sigh of relief that this thing is finally out.

W: What do you say to someone that wants to upgrade to Windows 2000? Does it ever make sense for them?

BL: I was talking to a reporter from USA Today recently. He says that consumers should wait for Windows Me and that Windows 2000 is only for businesses. But there are reasons for consumers to want Windows 2000. There are encryption features that would be useful for families were multiple people are using the same PC. If you have kids at home, kids could be more easily restricted. There's a certain functionality there that would be useful to families. In businesses where people are sharing PCs, the same thing applies. The issue is "who gets access to what?" You need Windows 2000 to do that. But I don't recommend that anyone install Windows 2000 without getting networking and user group administration training. Mom and pop businesses are going to get into trouble \[without training\].

W: What do you think about the monopoly charge? Is Microsoft a monopoly?

BL: Yes, I think Microsoft has a monopoly in consumer operating systems for Intel. The type of evidence I look at is the contracts they have with PC vendors like Compaq and Dell. The mainstream press has focused too much, I think, on the Internet Explorer integration with Windows 98. That is only one of many factors that the court is considering. However, I think \[the integration\] is non-competitive because it's product dumping. Microsoft's in a position where they could force OEMs to put a ham sandwich in the box if they wanted to. Why would we want a software company to dictate what PC makers can sell? The most serious charge \[against Microsoft\] is that they were able to write contracts where PC makers couldn't include Netscape with the computers they were selling. Clearly, they were leveraging their monopoly status, using that power against individual companies. That kind of contractual stuff was coming out of Bill Neukom, who is lead counsel for Microsoft, and I think he's gotten more and more brazen because no one's ever stopped him from putting these kinds of contract provisions in. With Microsoft, you don't really have any other place to go: If you want to be in the PC business, you have no choice, you have to have Windows. The example I like to use is a company that has all the nails in the world and everyone that wants nails has to buy them from you. Maybe they're better, faster, cheaper, whatever. That's fine; it's legal to have a monopoly. But if you then say, if you want to buy 1000 nails from me, you also have to buy 1000 sheets of plywood, that's product bundling, and there's a good reason that that's illegal. It's normal for any given company to achieve a dominant share in a market. Someone's going to be the cheaper provider; someone is going to have the better widget. One or two companies tend to dominate in any market.

W: So what do you say to the people that want to split Microsoft up?

BL: I'm in favor of a structural solution.

W. You are? What's your solution, then, to the Microsoft 'dilemma'?

BL: I wrote an InfoWorld column about this titled "Earth to Department of Justice: Don't create three new monopolies to replace the old one". I don't want an operating system monopoly, an applications monopoly, and an Internet services near-monopoly. Their Internet services are really the weakest, because AOL has the strongest online presence. Still, think what the stock would be if MSN was spun off all by itself. What I wrote in my column is that Microsoft should be required to license the Windows code to anyone that wants to sell Windows and the judge would settle on a fair price for that. Microsoft should also be required to publish the source code to Windows so that it would be open source. Essentially, as a penalty for all the bad things they've done over the years, Microsoft would lose the proprietary nature of the code \[to Windows\]. If you separate the Office company from the Windows company, then the Office team wouldn't be able to take unfair advantage of undocumented features in Windows. As far back as 1992, I wrote a piece in InfoWorld where I showed eight cases where Microsoft had used undocumented features of Windows to give advantages to other Microsoft products. Only one of the eight cases gave a Microsoft product a performance advantage. In the other seven cases, it was about letting those products use a feature before any other application \[outside of Microsoft\]. So they had a six to eight month lead-time, which, in the computer business, is a really long time. For example, when PowerPoint came out, it had OLE, so you could drag and drop things. It was supposed to be part of Windows and all of the \[third party\] developers were supposed to be given documentation so that they could build OLE into their documents. But PowerPoint came out with it and they didn't give it to Windows until months later. So you'll notice that \[today\] there aren't many other presentation packages for sale. But it's not just presentations. They added drag and drop to Windows and didn't release the code that made that work. You could drag a document to a printer icon and it would print. How did they do that? It was an undocumented feature. There are all kinds of cases of that going on, and this is back in 1992. I think it's kind of trippy after all these years: Most people think that Microsoft did these things in isolation, or only did them once with IE.

W: So what do you see actually happening to Microsoft?

BL: I don't know that we'll see the judge actually rule to break Microsoft into different companies for operating systems and applications development, but I think that would be healthy for everybody. Microsoft would be even more valuable and you'd have a more level playing field for developers.

W: So what about the integration of Internet Explorer? You said that wasn't the big issue, but is there some benefit of that to consumers? Do you think the decision to do that was made to make it easier on programmers, to make it better for consumers, or was it literally a bid to kill off Netscape?

BL: Well, IE was a separate product. When Windows 95 first came out, there was no IE in there. It was sold in a separate box and you could also download it. When they were developing it, they saw no particular benefit to bundling it with Windows 95. But when IE was not affecting the marketshare of Netscape, they decided to merge it in and it became a part of \[Windows 95\] OSR-2 \[the second release of Windows 95, which shipped only to PC makers for inclusion on new PCs\]. At that point, IE started becoming part of the OS and it wasn't something you could easily remove. Now I published a technique that allowed you to remove IE from Windows 98, without any tools. It involves getting some of the kernel of Windows 95 and putting it back in \[to Windows 98\], essentially turning Windows 98 back into Windows 95. The procedure leaves the HTML rendering engine behind, by replacing two files in Windows 98. Microsoft claimed in court that those two files are the browser. But I don't agree with that. Those are support files. You could write a program on top of those files that could display Web pages. I consider the browser to be the program where you click the Back and Forward buttons and type in Web addresses. I think that \[the support files\] should be kept in Windows: Other companies could write programs that use these files to render HTML. One company, NeoPlanet, their browser uses the Microsoft HTML rendering engine. Also the email package Eudora Pro, will use the Microsoft rendering engine rather than their own if you set it up that way. Microsoft is claiming that they can't remove the browser from Windows 98. But of course you can: If iexplore.exe isn't there, you can't bring up the window, you can't type a URL.

W: But is that enough? Does that satisfy the complaint?

BL: I think it does. It satisfies me. There must be some limit to what Microsoft can give away for free. We have antitrust laws; we have product-dumping laws. If Microsoft could put any product it wanted to--for free--into the operating system, when faced with a competitor who is gaining marketshare, you will never have competitors.

W: But who do we do that? Is there going to be a law someday that says, "hey, this is an operating system: Anything else cannot be included"?

BL: Those are conduct remedies. I'm not necessarily in favor of conduct remedies. I would rather have a structural remedy that broke Microsoft up into two separate companies. If Microsoft were forced to publish the \[Windows\] code, then you wouldn't have to monitor anything. I think it would actually hurt Linux a lot if Windows were made open source.

W: Absolutely.

BL: At 40 million lines, it's going to take us a long time to read all that, but…

W: (Laughing)

BL: But someday, our kids probably.

W: I almost think that Microsoft would be reluctant to release the source code, if only due to the embarrassment of the revelations of some of the code. I mean these Linux people are probably dying to see it, if only to ridicule it: "Oh look at this stupid thing. Look how dumb this is."

BL: Yeah, you know there's an undocumented API that simply prints all of your passwords in plain text format? If you know what it is, it just spits them out. If Windows were open source, a 'feature' like that wouldn't survive for a day.

W: Do you think that Gates' recent move out of the CEO spot had anything to do with the DOJ? Or was that part of some long-term plan he had to step back and get involved more with the software?

BL: Well, I think it had to do with the DOJ, but in a different way \[than many people think\]. The paranoid view is that the DOJ wanted to get Gates out of the CEO position. But I don't think that they cared. The people \[responsible for Microsoft's\] behavior were Bill Neukom and Steve Ballmer.

W: Sure, but Gates is the public face of Microsoft.

BL: He was. Gates didn't like the case personifying him. He wanted to get out of the spotlight, spend more time with his kids, and be a visionary, a creative person. If Ballmer wants to run the nuts and bolts, let Ballmer run the nuts and bolts. He goes off on his 'think weeks,' thinks, and writes emails about what his thoughts were.

W: (Laughing) Yeah, we all do that, don't we?

BL: I should have such great thoughts. Is all of this going to be published?

W: Oh yeah.

BL: I'm happy to quote all of this stuff on the record. I just want to stress that I'm not a legal expert. Don't you want to know how to dual boot Windows 2000 or something?

W: (Laughing) Well. Hmmm… Actually, there are two parts to this. I want to review your new book as well, obviously. The interview is a separate thing.

BL: So when you ask me about the court case, I'm happy to discuss it. I just don't want to give you my … stupid opinions.

W: But they're not stupid opinions. I could get stupid opinions from anyone (gestures around the restaurant).

BL: (Laughing) Oh, is that why you come here?

W: (Laughing) No, as I wrote in the intro to this already, I think you have a unique role in this industry because, in my eyes at least, you're doing something that's kind of rare, actually. You're dealing with real people that have problems, some have solutions, workarounds, and you're publicizing this stuff in InfoWorld and in your books. Your opinions are probably more relevant, perhaps, than many.

BL: Yeah, I'm actually becoming one of the only people in the computer industry that's in his 40's too.

W: (Laughing) I'm right behind you.

BL: So, it's bizarre, writing a column for almost ten years…

W: Yeah, that's amazing.

BL: I started programming computers in 1968. I learned to program with Fortran 4 on an IBM 360 in a special class at San Diego state university. I was a junior in high school and they had a summer class. We had to do 80 column punch cards. That's all there was, back in 1968.

W: I wouldn't even be in this industry now if I had been faced with that.

BL: It was brutal. But within three weeks, I had written a three thousand line chess program. On punch cards. And I was in heaven.

\[At this point, the tape clicked off on my micro-recorder, so we switched topics. --Paul\]

BL: So I'm hoping, in my books, that I'm not perceived as a mouthpiece for Microsoft, because I want to expose those things they're doing that I think are wrong. At the same time, you've got 58 million people using NT and 200 million, or whatever, using Windows 98. And they have troubles. They have big problems. I want to help them, and if helping them makes Windows a more acceptable product, and sells more copies, so what? I can't stop that. It is what most people are using on computers now anyway.

W: Anytime you write for Windows, you risk that email or letter from someone who assumes that you're some Microsoft sycophant.

BL: Well, that's what the Delete key is for Paul.

W: (Laughing) Right. Right. You're helping people solve problems, that's the bigger issue. And that's why your opinion on this stuff is so valuable.

BL: One thing that I'm pleased with is that I've never signed a non-disclosure \[agreement, or NDA\] with Microsoft, so I won't compromise. If I know something, I'm going to say it. These are all unauthorized books. I've never thought that there'd be a benefit to making a deal with them. I've even signed up for developer conferences with them under assumed names.

W: Right.

BL: On Windows 95, we got M6 (an early build of "Chicago," which became Windows 95), even before Beta 1. That was December of '93; there was a conference in Anaheim, California. It was the Win32 Developers Conference and it was great because we went to Disneyland that night and the whole place was overrun by nerds. They gave us all free passes to Disneyland; I guess it closes at sunset and they can rent it out. We were all \[trying to figure out how the rides worked\].

W: (Laughing) Right. "Hmm… How'd they make it splash like that?"

BL: (Laughing) Right.

\[At this point, a cascading series of unrelated conversations about movies and Star Trek ensues. This is the type of thing that happens when people like us get together. I'll spare you the gruesome details. --Paul\]

BL: So I do recommend Toy Story 2.

W: (Laughs) OK.

\[More movie talk.\]

BL: With the first book, with Windows 3.0, I had been hired to be a consultant. They were using DOS with Word for DOS, I think Word 4.0 for DOS. They weren't even using Word for DOS 5.0. They had vice presidents whose little daughters were creating these fabulous documents on their Macs at school. And they said to there IS department, "Why can't be do this?" They were stuck with DOS and daisy wheel printers at the time. So they got me in to decide whether to move to the Mac or Windows. This was January of 1990 so we got one of the early betas of Windows 3.0 and it actually stood up really well against the Mac.

W: Really?

BL: Yeah, they were a very heavily document-oriented company and the killer was when we put a Mac and a PC side-by-side. On the Mac, 8-point type was just a small gray bar; it was unreadable. And they used 8-point all the time for footnotes, tables, legal stuff. The Mac's screen was 72 dots per inch. But Windows used 96 dots per inch: 8-point type was small, but it was perfectly readable. So the vice presidents came in and said, OK, we'll use Windows. No hard drives. Quiet fans. We divided the network up so that they were reading and using all of the files they needed on a server.

W: Wow.

BL: In the context of doing all this work, we were one of 20 companies in the world that bought a $10,000 a year level of support from Microsoft. And when we picked up the phone and called \[Microsoft\], the guy on the other end of the line was the guy that wrote the Windows 3.0 Resource Kit. We're getting the top people at Microsoft, because if you've only got 20 customers paying for this service, you can afford to do this. Every time we asked them a question, they'd point us to some undocumented feature of Windows. You know, "if you just hit CTRL-A, you'll see this other menu…" So we would write these things down, but we eventually asked him, "where are you getting these things from?" And we found out about the Microsoft Knowledge Base. This is way before the Internet. There were bulletin boards and stuff like that. So he gave us the password, and the other 20 companies had the password, and you could look at the Knowledge Base \[on the Microsoft BBS\]. I think there were about 1500 pages of information on Windows 3.0. But because it was a bulletin board and you were tying up the phone line, they'd only let you be on for 60 minutes a day. So for 60 minutes a day--every day--I started with document 10001, and I downloaded everything until they kicked me off. Every day I downloaded more and by the time a year had gone by, I had these 1500 pages \[of Windows 3.0 support information\]. And that's what I turned into Windows 3.0 Secrets. I looked at that and I said, everyone that uses Windows 3.0 should know about this. They need this information, and they can't pay for this support for a year. I never sought permission from Microsoft, I never sought their approval or anything.

W: Maybe we shouldn't be discussing this. (Laughing)

BL: I wrote every word; you can't just plagiarize. The material was copyrighted, sure, but a fact can't be copyrighted. You can say something if it's a fact, and that's what I did. So Windows 3.0 Secrets became a best-selling computer book, even though it came out 6 months after Windows 3.0. All the other books about Windows 3.0 were like, "Click the File menu, click Print" because that's what most computer books are, they're very elementary. But some people need a level of information that's deeper.

W: Because a lot of that stuff just isn't discoverable.

BL: Right. There's information that you could discover, but why should you have to spend hours discovering it, why don't you just look in the index of my book? It doesn't have to be painful

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