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Microsoft emails focus on DR-DOS threat

Caldera antitrust trial evidence shows Bill Gates directed his staff to explore how a competing operating system might fail when running Microsoft applications.

Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates directed his staff to explore how a competing operating system might fail when running Microsoft applications, according to evidence released today in Caldera's private antitrust lawsuit against the software giant.

Gates's directive was part of a series of high-level discussions about how to compete Microsoft's day in court against DR-DOS, a rival to Microsoft's MS-DOS. One idea repeatedly floated in email was exploiting existing incompatibilities--or creating new ones--so that computer users would choose Microsoft's operating system.

"You never sent me a response on the question of what things an app [application] would do that would make it run with MSDOS and not run with DR-DOS," Gates chided his staff in a 1989 email. "Is there [sic] feature they have that might get in our way?"

Two years later, Microsoft programmers and executives exchanged emails that discussed putting code in a beta version of Windows 3.1 which would cause an error message to be displayed when the software ran on top of DR-DOS, then marketed by Novell. Debate raged about the proposal.

"I hate this whole thing," one employee wrote in an email. "I think it's totally rude, reinforces the image that users have of us as the evil ones, etc."

Such code never appeared in the commercial version of Windows 3.1.

Microsoft also debated the exact language the message should contain. In the end, senior vice president Brad Silverberg said in a 1992 email that the message needed to steer users away from DR-DOS. "What the [user] is supposed to do is feel uncomfortable, and when he has bugs, suspect that the problem is DR-DOS and then go out to buy MS-DOS," Silverberg wrote.

The proposed message caused Brad Chase, Microsoft's vice president, to warn that the code detecting DR-DOS "better be perfect. Otherwise you could be in a heap [sic] of trouble."

Microsoft characterized the Caldera document as "pulp fiction" that quotes snippets of emails out of context and provides misleading information. "Caldera is trying to rewrite the history of the high tech industry," Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn said. "Their headline-grabbing theatrics cannot obscure the fact that their claims lack legal and factual merit."

Caldera bought the rights to DR-DOS in 1996 and almost immediately filed suit accusing Microsoft of using predatory tactics to drive the rival operating system out of the market. MS-DOS is the precursor to Windows, and has since been folded in to Windows 95 and Windows 98.

At Microsoft's request, the vast majority of documents filed in the case have been sealed. The evidence released today provides the most detailed account so far of Caldera's claims, as well as the dramatic language Microsoft executives used behind closed doors.

"If you're going to kill someone there isn't much reason to get all worked up about it and angry," Allchin wrote in an email discussing how Microsoft should compete against Novell. "Any discussions beforehand are a waste of time. We need to smile at Novell while we pull the trigger."

One way Microsoft sought to gain an advantage, email suggests, was by charging computer sellers for every machine sold, whether or not they contained Microsoft software. A Microsoft employee in one email acknowledged that by getting Hyundai Electronics to sign such "per processor" licenses--so named because sellers were charged based on the number of CPUs they sold--DR-DOS and its then maker, Digital Research, were put at a severe disadvantage.

Digital Research "is still alive," the employee wrote. "We are pushing [Hyundai] to sign the amendment on processor based license. This will block out DR once signed."

Caldera has also alleged that Microsoft made promises to release software it never followed through on in order to scare smaller competitors away from delivering similar products. These "vaporware" announcements are only part of an aggressive public relations strategy demonstrated in the 188-page document, Caldera contends.

Caldera chief executive Bryan Sparks called the document "a good read," and said it was gratifying to finally be able to detail public allegations that previously had only been made in sealed documents.

"We all know that Microsoft is a great spin meister, but to see that they deliberately misled the press and their customers I think is really damaging," Sparks said in an interview. "I would hope that people would say that what Microsoft has said publicly doesn't necessarily gibe with what Microsoft does internally."

Today's document was made public after three news organizations--Bloomberg, the San Jose Mercury, and the Salt Lake Tribune--challenged Microsoft's designation that the evidence contains trade secrets. Caldera announced its filing of the document in a press release.