Daniel Eran Dilger
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SCO, Linux, and Microsoft in the History of OS: 1970s

SCO, Linux, and Microsoft in the History of OS: 1970s
Daniel Eran Dilger
[continued from part one: Daniel Lyons: Fake Steve Jobs and the SCO Shill Who Hated Linux]

he recent news about SCO and Unix copyright and Linux is difficult to accurately piece together without historical context. Understanding the market for Windows, Linux, and the Mac today also benefits from hindsight of previous events that shaped the present. It even offers to illuminate possibilities of the future.

Looking at the past comments of tech industry analysts also helps explain why there is so much confusing, false information published about the various participants in the tech industry: there’s lots of money to be made.

The Odd Couple of SCO.
Forbes’ Daniel Lyons, along with Rob Enderle, long maintained that the SCO Group would prevail in lawsuits attacking users of Linux. They frequently wrote not only about how doomed Linux itself was, but also how delusional its supporters were. Their joint crusade against Linux frequently cited each other’s comments.
Dan Lyons

In a Forbes article entitled “Revenge of the Nerds,” Lyons scoured Internet message boards to find sensationalist comments from readers supporting Linux, framing them to suggest anyone interested in Linux was insane. Lyons added, “Robert Enderle, an analyst who believes SCO’s claims might be legitimate, says he and others also have been threatened, and says this ‘techno-insanity’ verges on terrorism.”

Shortly afterward Enderle, in a rambling screed against Linux, referred to Lyons’ article as an “expose,” that “pointed out that a large number of Linux advocates don’t appear to actually use the product,” a statement never even suggested by Lyons in his article.

Robert Enderle

Enderle and Lyons cross-linked each other on Linux and SCO, with Enderle specializing in his anti-Linux Windows Enthusiasm and Lyons seeking to brand Linux users as both independent ragtag crazies and, at the same time, an organized posse of anti-SCO propagandists supported in a secret astroturf campaign by IBM.

[Revenge Of The Nerds – Forbes.com]

Attacking and Marginalizing Dissenting Opinion.
Lyons’ sarcastically negative view of the Linux community was served up in piles of articles in the pages of Forbes, and even exuded through his blog caricature of Steve Jobs. Why made bashing Linux so important?

Linux users–like Mac users–were watching their platform of choice struggle in competition against Microsoft’s entrenched monopoly position. False information, or bits of truth dispersed in an unfairly negative spin, actually caused real damage to their efforts, causing them to passionately defend the truth. Lyons, Enderle and others would then twist users’ defenses into fanaticism and mock their sincerity.

Lyons was particularly effective at asking leading questions that could extract a story of his own making. While reviling bloggers as “online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective,” Lyons’ own column in Forbes really did the same; he simply targeted a subject he though was too enfeebled to survive or fight back in a meaningful way.

[Attack of the Blogs – Forbes.com]

I’m a Lover Not a Hater.
Lyons says characterizing him as a “Linux hater” for his past reporting is unfair, maintaining that he has used Linux for years and that he has reported favorably on Linux when he had a reason do to so. He also reports that he had no vested interest in SCO winning its case, and that he was surprised by Linux vendors’ apparent lack of concern about SCO’s actions:

“I was shocked to call Linux vendors and hear them say they weren’t worried about what SCO was doing. My feeling was then (and would be today) that even if you think SCO’s claims were groundless, the FUD could still be damaging and your marketing organization needs to respond.”

However, Lyons’ reporting on Linux and open software in general reflect the views common among reporters who distill complex subjects into broad generalizations, and run with the quotes fed to them by purported experts like Enderle, who clearly have a very clear negative agenda to advance.

Why Support SCO?
It is not very important that Lyons happened to be wrong; it’s more important and interesting why he was wrong, because there are valuable lessons to be learned in the history of operating systems on the desktop.

Lyons described own version of the events involving SCO, explaining, “In 1996, SCO’s predecessor company, Caldera, bought the rights to a decrepit version of the DOS operating system and used it to sue Microsoft, eventually shaking a settlement out of the Redmond, Wash., software giant.”

Since Caldera later acquired and then became SCO, Lyons decided the same thing would happen again, except this time the loser would be Linux. This seemed even more likely because in 2002, SCO had picked up a litigious new CEO in the form of Darl McBride.

Lyons thought that if Caldera had already won big money from Microsoft, its new incarnation as SCO–led by a complete shyster of a new executive–would have no problem raping the big companies that had thrown their support behind Linux, starting with IBM.

[Daniel Lyons: Fake Steve Jobs and the SCO Shill Who Hated Linux]


Why Lyons Was Wrong: the Origins of Microsoft.
The problem was that Lyons’ version of history was a gross oversimplification. Caldera didn’t merely buy up an ancient version of DOS and form it into a tool to use against Microsoft.

That “decrepit version of DOS” was DR-DOS, developed by Digital Research. It dated back to CP/M, the predominant microcomputer operating system in the late 70s. That market was still very small; the biggest licensee of CP/M was a small company called Traf-0-Data, run by two kids named Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

When the idea of personal computers started taking off, Gates and Allen began taking orders for BASIC language software to run on the new hardware being developed, including the Altair and the Apple II, and began operating under the new name Microsoft.

Hardware vs Software: 1976 – 1981.
In the business computing world, software was recognized as delivering a large portion of the value in a computing system. Examples include the operating systems proprietary to IBM, AT&T’s Unix, and DEC’s VMS running on VAX hardware.

At the same time, new efforts were being made to deliver interoperable software that could run anywhere. BSD, a UC Berkeley project to improve upon AT&T’s Unix, had been developing throughout the late 70s with support for a variety of hardware. In the early 80s, Richard Stallman began defining his vision for free software as a
shared technology anyone could contribute toward and use, like the shared knowledge of books in a library.

PC makers in the 70s

Among personal desktop computers however, the perceived value was in hardware. Among the dominant players in the late 70s were:

  • Commodore, which had introduced the all in one personal computer with the PET 2001.
  • Apple, which had shipped one of the first ready to use personal computers with color graphics.
  • Atari, which had expanded its video games business into a line of personal computers.
  • Tandy, the owner of RadioShack, which sold the TRS-80 line.

Each of these companies wrote their own system software. Of the various desktop computer makers to explode onto the scene the early 80s, many began selling systems that licensed CP/M, both so they wouldn’t have to write their own operating system, and also so their hardware could run existing, popular programs written for CP/M, including the WordStar word processor.

Apple even sold a Z80 processor card for its Apple II systems enabling them to run CP/M software, and third parties delivered CP/M for the Z80 based TRS-80.

[1980-1985: 8-bit Platforms]


IBM Fights the Future: 1981.
IBM’s business was in mainframes and minicomputers. When it entered the PC business in 1981, it partnered with Microsoft to quickly deliver a low end system that was really designed to stave off a migration to PCs.

IBM maintained a virtual monopoly in business computing, and it didn’t want to have to compete against a bunch of upstart PC makers in a new desktop computing industry. The PC was intended to stomp out any rivals, including Apple, from making any progress in the business computing space.

IBM didn’t have to maintain compatibility with existing CP/M systems, as its could leverage its existing monopoly in business computing to sell its new PC. It did however attempt to reuse existing technology to deliver the PC as cheaply as possible, and sought to simply license CP/M for resale.

 Rd Rdm.Tech.Q3.07 8C9E3322-921D-4A9D-Bdcc-671A205906Af Files Droppedimage 1

[Donkey Folklore.org]

Microsoft Copies CP/M: 1981.
Microsoft’s first attempt to license software for resale hadn’t been very successful. In 1979, Microsoft licensed AT&T’s V7 Unix, paired it with code from BSD, and resold it under the name Xenix. After that plan failed, Gates and Allen decided that rather than simply licensing CP/M from Digital Research and trying to resell it, they could make far more money selling a knock off copy of CP/M.


Microsoft lined up a sweet deal in 1981 to buy the rights to QDOS, an unauthorized clone of CP/M written by Seattle Software Works. Microsoft subsequently licensed the software to IBM for use on its new PC under the name PC-DOS. Microsoft retained the rights to also license the software to other hardware manufacturers under the name MS-DOS.

Microsoft’s DOS clearly lifted large portions of its functionality directly from CP/M. However, at the time there was little concept of software patents in the rapidly emerging desktop computing market, and even the idea of software copyright was loosely defined.

Unlike business users, casual desktop users commonly didn’t perceive value in software, and saw little problem in copying it. Microsoft’s Gates wanted to change that; he also argued against the developing idea of free software, despite the fact that the DOS software he was selling was itself an unauthorized copy.

As its fortunes began to take off with IBM’s PC, Microsoft also worked diligently to shut Digital Research out of the very market it had created with CP/M. While Digital Research tried to sell its original version for IBM’s PC as a product called CP/M-86, Microsoft was able to deeply discount its DOS and compete on price because it had spent very little to acquire its copy.

Continues: SCO, Linux, and Microsoft in the History of OS: 1980s

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