Microsoft Rivals Boil over Book about Windows

Stephen Kreider Yoder, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

September 1, 1992

A new book that lists allegedly secret features of Microsoft Corp.'s popular Windows operating software is causing a stir among Microsoft's rivals, who suggest that the software company may be unfairly exploiting those secrets to compete with rivals' programs.

The book, "Undocumented Windows," was published by Addison-Wesley in June and purports to list features that are part of Windows, but that Microsoft hasn't listed in the documentation it provides to other software makers that write programs that run on Windows. Its authors, who include computer writer Andrew Schulman, say in the book that Windows contains more than 200 such "undocumented calls."

Makers of "applications" programs such as word-processors and spreadsheets write their software using the list of "calls," a sort of vocabulary list of commands that the operating system understands and translates into certain computer functions. Undocumented calls are common: Most operating systems includes certain calls that their designers put there but don't list, often because the features aren't perfected or because they may be taken out in future versions.

But the beef among Microsoft's rivals is that Microsoft's divisions that write applications may be using the undocumented calls. That argument got a boost from InfoWorld, a weekly trade publication, which said in this week's edition that its tests "confirmed that a number of Microsoft applications take advantage of calls described in the book."

Microsoft officials conceded that some of the company's engineers used undocumented calls in programs such as its Word word processor and Excel spreadsheet in violation of a Microsoft policy that prohibits the practice. Still, said Brad Silverberg, who oversees Microsoft's operating systems effort, almost all companies use undocumented calls.

Microsoft maintains that it gives rivals the same access to information about undocumented calls that it gives to its own internal application developers. Mr. Silverberg said that most of the undocumented calls used by Microsoft are functions that could have been carried out by documented calls or other simple steps. "If you look at these undocumented calls that have got everybody into a lather, it's trivial," he said, adding that Microsoft will now take out the calls or document them.

Still, the issue is incendiary because it touches the oft-asked question of whether Microsoft is misusing its position as the dominant supplier of operating systems -- the programs such as Windows and MSDOS that translate commands from application programs into a language a computer can understand -- to gain market share in applications. The Federal Trade Commission last year began an investigation into Microsoft's business practices for possible violations of antitrust law.

By using undocumented calls, Microsoft's application writers may have been able to avoid the time-consuming task of writing new code, said Steven Weitzeil, director of WordPerfect Corp.'s Windows version of its popular word-processing program. "We're talking about something they're using in their applications but not making available to others," he said. "They have an unfair advantage over us because they're using a capability we're not aware of."

WordPerfect put a developer on the task, for example, of writing computer code that duplicates the function of undocumented calls relating to a program's use of timing in a computer, Mr. Weitzeil said. If Microsoft's applications use some of those calls and "if it provides a definite advantage to them, they should provide it to people who are competing with them," he said.

Microsoft's Mr. Silverberg said that Windows takes care of the functions of the undocumented calls that WordPerfect questions through documented calls that do the same thing. Windows only has a "couple of dozen" undocumented calls, he said. "A product's success isn't attributable in any way to these undocumented" calls, he said. "It's a tempest in a teapot."

But whatever Microsoft's argument, rivals complain that it is a matter of principle that Microsoft should be open and forthcoming about any features of its operating systems. It is Microsoft's "responsibility to assist us in taking the best advantage" of Windows, said Hamid Mirza, a vice president at Borland International Inc. of Scotts Valley, Calif. Microsoft's use of its own undocumented features is "disturbing," he said. "What's coming through is that they haven't been providing enough assistance."

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