Microsoft: Unix powerhouse?

Redmond-based Unix development team works to make Solaris a client in the NT world

By Robert McMillan

April  1998
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This month Microsoft will release its Outlook Express mail and newsgroup client for Solaris, Microsoft's third Unix product in recent months, following COM and IE for Solaris. Recently we paid a visit to Microsoft's Unix hackers to find out what's new in the world of Microsoft Unix development and ask them how far Microsoft plans to go in this new space. (1,500 words)

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There are Unix people working at Microsoft. I have seen them with my own eyes. In fact, there are just under 60 Microsoft employees who make their living developing applications for such platforms as Solaris, HP-UX, and Irix -- working at an apparent breakneck pace on the ground floor of the nondescript building #32 on Microsoft's main campus.

And their work cannot be easy. They work for a company that is anathema to many of their users. They support an operating system that their coworkers aim to render obsolete. And, worst of all, they are late to the party and, with Netscape's recent release of the Communicator source code, competing against a worldwide grassroots development effort.

The irony of a Unix development effort being funded by Microsoft is not lost on Unit Manager Ramesh Parameswaran. On his office door is a sign that reads simply, "Peace & love between Unix & Microsoft."

Early delays
While Microsoft's efforts to ramp up Internet Explorer on the Windows platforms are widely regarded as a textbook example of a successful strategic turnaround, the reviews are still out on IE for Unix.

Microsoft didn't even announce plans to do a Unix browser until July 1996 -- one year after Netscape's Unix Navigator, and its first six months of development work, done under contract by Bristol Technology (Danbury, CT), was scrapped in early 1997 when the project was brought in-house, and Parameswaran was charged with hiring a brand new team and getting the project back on track.

Unix Unit Manager
Ramesh Parameswaran

Microsoft then began building the product using Mainsoft's well-regarded MainWin development platform, finally posting beta code in November 1997 -- one year behind schedule.

Varied team
But now with final code for IE out the door (it was released at the end of February), Parameswaran's team has gained a measure of self-esteem.

That sense of accomplishment should be deepened when they post their first version of the Outlook Express mail and newsgroup client for Solaris on April 20.

Though Microsoft has done some Unix work in the past (anybody remember Word for Unix?), this is certainly the most concerted Unix development effort in recent memory.

About half the team, including Parameswaran, came straight out of Microsoft. While others came from various bona fide Unix entities like Convex Computer Corp. (now part of Hewlett-Packard) or The Open Group.

In conversation, Microsoft's Unix people are careful to stress that they are not mavericks. And toiling away in one of the three identical buildings that house the bulk of the IE development effort, they look just like any other Microsoft team: They eat at the same cafeteria. They park in the same lots. They have water pistols. It's when you look closely that you see the differences: things like SPARCstations, too many O'Reilly books, CDE.

Parameswaran says that the mission of the 20 full-time developers on his team is to develop two products right now: Internet Explorer, and the e-mail client, Outlook Express. He says there are no plans to do Microsoft Office or any personal productivity applications. "Stuff like word processing and so on, we leave it to third parties," he says.

Mixed reception
Since its beta release last November, IE has received a healthy number of downloads -- over 30,000 so far, according to Parameswaran. As with Outlook Express, the only Unix platform supported by IE right now is SPARC Solaris. Microsoft expects to release an HP-UX version of both products by year's end and have SGI Irix ports sometime after that.

Reaction from the Unix community, which has never had a great affection for Microsoft, has thus far been "heavily mixed," according to Unix IE Program Manager Daryl Wray. "You've got your Unix bigots on one side who are just not even going to consider the fact that Microsoft could deliver a usable product, and then you've got people who appreciate us providing some competition in the Unix browser market."

Thomas Burnett, a software engineer with Schlumberger Ltd. in Austin, TX, is one of those who appreciates the competition. "It's great," he says of the copy of Internet Explorer he is currently running on his SPARCstation 5. "It just feels better than Netscape. As far as I can tell it's equivalent to the Windows version."

Of course not everything is perfect.

The loudest and most consistent complaint about IE is the lack of broader, cross-platform support. With plans to support only two platforms (Solaris and HP-UX) by year's end and no plans to support Linux, SunOS, SCO, BSD, or even AIX (which has apparently dropped off the radar since last November), Microsoft will face a hard sell to many in the Unix community.

Another complaint is that IE has limitations such as an ActiveX control host in Unix. It can host some ActiveX controls, for example the HTML parser and Java virtual machine, but not all of them.

A third issue raised by some users is IE's font and color caching. If the browser senses that you have changed X servers, it will set about recaching its 3,000 or so Windows colors and fonts, and this can take some time.

On the other hand, bringing a little bit of Windows into the Unix world is a blessing for some.

Members of Microsoft's Unix development team
in front of building #32

"It's definitely a contender," says Ramesh Viswanathan, a system administrator with Siemens Inc. "It's not as if Netscape doesn't have its own set of bugs. None of the browsers are really perfect."

Dividends for developers
Schlumberger's Burnett, like many other software vendors, is most keenly interested in the fact that Microsoft has chosen to support its Component Object Model on Unix. Previously COM on Unix had been ported by a number of third-party vendors, including Bristol Technology and Software AG. In January of this year, Microsoft announced that it had acquired Software AG's COM code and would be developing essential COM components, like remote procedure calls and the COM interfaces, in-house.

"Putting COM on Unix is going to have a [positive] impact on our ability to deliver solutions into the business arena," predicts Bill Curtis, director of computer science at Landmark Graphics Corp. Curtis says that with working, Microsoft-blessed COM components available for Unix, Landmark will be able to extend its Unix-based geophysical imaging products to interoperate with business applications like those from SAP or PeopleSoft. "You can model the earth," he says, "you can figure out how much oil is down there, but in order to make a decision about the risk and the economics of drilling a well, you need to bring in a lot of business information."

Microsoft the Unix powerhouse?
COM is one thing, but why is Microsoft doing applications like IE and Outlook?

"I don't think they have any intention or belief that they are going to dominate the Unix world in any shape or form," observes Zona Research Vice President Harry Fenik. "Microsoft is trying to put servers in the enterprise. That's the real goal here."

Netscape clients do not support Microsoft's Dynamic HTML and all the various message formatting and security options available in Microsoft Exchange server.

"There are a bunch of customers, Fortune 500 companies, who will not allow the browser on Windows unless they have the browser on Unix," says Microsoft's Parameswaran. According to him, the most important thing his group is doing now is promoting the IE and Outlook platforms.

Zona's Fenik concurs. "Internet Explorer has not been adopted by many corporations," he says, "because they want only one browser. The same thing applies to Outlook. Corporations don't want a calendaring system that can't be accessed by five percent of their staff."

There are rumors, flatly denied by Parameswaran, that Microsoft is even looking to port its server products to Unix. Zona's Fenik says that releasing Microsoft's Internet Information Server or Exchange from the NT-only paradigm might make sense. "Microsoft has a particular handicap that their competitors don't have when it comes to server applications," he notes. "There's virtually never a place where the Lotus Domino server can't go."

No plans for Intel
While Microsoft is interested in promoting the IE platform, it does not seem interested in promoting it on such high-volume Unix platforms as Linux or SCO. In fact, Parameswaran has no plans to support any products on any Intel-based Unix, including Solaris for Intel.

Parameswaran, while conceding that there has been interest in a Linux port, says that Microsoft will support platforms that its corporate customers, like Shell and Siemens, tell it to support. And, he maintains, Linux is simply not one of them. So for the foreseeable future, if you want to run Microsoft software on your Intel box, you need to be running Windows, not Unix.


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