A reader sent me a link to a new patent application by Microsoft. Not the Bluej one, which has been in the news and which Microsoft, commendably, has withdrawn, but another one, for what seemed to me to be a modular operating system, "System and method for delivery of a modular operating system".
Microsoft and modular are two words I wouldn't normally associate with one another, so I thought maybe I'd misunderstood it. Heaven only knows, patent applications are generally written to confuse, not illuminate, and so I sent it to Dr. Stupid to ask if he'd please explain it to me. He did, and his explanation was so interesting, I asked if I could share it with you.
As best as I can understand it, it's not an attempted patent on a modular system per se. That obviously wouldn't fly. As he points out, it's not new. The patent relates to a method of delivery of an operating system where
you start off with a very basic operating system, a kind of crippled starter edition,
and then you pick and choose (and purchase) additional functionality, with DRM used to make sure you don't self-help. It's like modular copyleft, turning the advantages of GNU/Linux -- modularity there increases what you can do and what you can add and how well everything works -- and instead turns the concept on its head by using modularity plus DRM to restrict and contain and enforce.
The result seems a bit scary to me, and I ask myself, why would anyone agree to something like this? Perhaps I can chalk it up to Microsoft innovating again. They must be testing the outer limits of what a customer will put up with before bolting to Linux, certainly a valuable scientific study from my point of view.
So, using our imagination, let's extrapolate -- how could such a business model, whether the patent is granted or not, be used in an imagined Microsoft Brave New Modular World? Of course, Microsoft doesn't need a patent to use this business model, nor does a patent application prove it will use the model. However, as attorney Michael Geist phrases it, Microsoft's Vista already "seemingly wrestles control of the 'user experience' from the user." And this patent application brings to mind a model that takes it a further step. Another issue: if Microsoft doesn't need a patent to pursue this model, then why apply for a patent? To corner the market in restrictive, controlling operating systems? Well, speaking for myself, Microsoft can have that corner of the market to itself, by all means. When would having a patent on such a system be an advantage? I'll leave all such possibilities to your imagination.
But here's how Dr. Stupid understands the patent and how it could play out as a business model:
The patent is not interesting for its technical content -- all the building
blocks of the described system have been used for some time now -- but for
the glimpse it offers into the business model envisaged by the applicant.
Therefore, I shall not delve into whether the patent should be granted at all
in this discussion.
The application relates to a method of delivery of operating systems where
one initially obtains a very basic operating system (for example, one that can do little more
than display a web browser restricted to one site or domain) and thereafter
is presented with the option to select (and purchase) additional functionality.
Some of the examples given echo aspects of the cut-down "Starter Editions"
of XP and Vista:
10. The operating system of claim 1, wherein the at least one add-on
module corresponds to a number of concurrent windows.
11. The operating system of claim 1, wherein the at least one add-on
module corresponds to a number of concurrent applications active at a
Now, having a simple starter system to which additional functionality
is added and
upgraded via software modules is not new: this is the traditional
used by Debian, and the idea goes back further than Linux
distributions themselves (one
could argue that it is part of the central UNIX philosophy, for
example.) What distinguishes
the proposed system's approach is the following:
1) Retrograde steps in base functionality.
Some of what is described as "additional functionality" is actually
which ought to be (and previously has been) standard in the
operating system. For example, any modern general-purpose operating system, even a very basic one,
should support running as
many simultaneous applications as the user wishes, limited only by the
constraints of the platform
hardware. To impose a limit of, say, 4 simultaneous applications is an arbitrary
restriction. More pointedly, preparation of the artificially-limited
version requires further engineering effort; there is no "sweat of the
brow" argument I can see to differentially price the limited and unlimited
(in contrast, a multi-processor capable OS kernel does represent
additional engineering effort compared with
a uniprocessor kernel, and as such could be justifiably offered as a
This use of an explicitly defeatured system as, one presumes, a loss
leader item which the
producer hopes the user will pay to upgrade will be familiar to
readers as "demoware" (or
more unkindly "crippleware"), but to my knowledge this is the first
time such an approach is being
extended to encompass an operating system as opposed to a few low-cost
The patent application amusingly tries to dress up the removal or
impairment of functionality
which currently all users enjoy as standard as a benefit:
 The peripheral category may include .... the number of
peripherals allowed. A computer 110 functioning with the basic kernel
operating system 202 may have limited peripheral support. Add-on
modules may allow users to select the types, speed, and number of
peripherals allowed and supported.
The purchaser of a new computer might be entitled to expect to
be able to plug in all his or her peripherals from the old computer.
 The communication category may include network interfaces, ...
Add-on modules for communication may be used to support ... for
example, DSL speeds up 500 kilobits per second, or speeds up to the
maximum supported by the available hardware. Communication may also be
limited by type, such as support for Internet browsing separate from
So even if your modem, line, and ISP support 8Mbit/s, your
internet browsing may be deliberately throttled by the OS unless you
obtain an additional "module".
 .... a power user may want specific window and background
themes with associated styles, a significant number of concurrent
windows, and an unlimited number of concurrent applications, up to the
capacity of the hardware.
I would tentatively offer the suggestion that *any* user would
want the OS to use the full capacity of the hardware at all times,
even when performing simple tasks.
... Users of business support applications may benefit from a support
pack including high speed disk access...
The placement of high speed access in a module implies that the
standard offering might deliberately throttle back disk performance to
create an artificial reason to upgrade.
2) DRM to control system expansion
DRM, in various forms, is used (a) to ensure the new functionality
has been legitimately obtained (i.e. paid for) and (b)
to only allow "approved" additional modules.
3. The operating system of claim 1, wherein the at least one of the
plurality of add-on modules further comprises a certification, wherein
only add-on modules with the certification are activated by the
12. The operating system of claim 1, wherein the at least one add-on
module comprises digital rights management corresponding to at least
one of a number of uses of the add-on module, an expiration date of
the add-on module, or a cumulative uses of the add-on module.
Of these two aspects, (a) can be defended as an anti-piracy measure.
(b), on the other hand, serves the main purpose of obstructing third
parties from filling in the functionality holes in the basic offering
or (to borrow a popular phrase) removing the computer's owner's
"freedom to tinker".
There is a clear signal that the ability to install even non-approved
applications (let alone OS components) is controlled:
5. The operating system of claim 1, wherein the at least one add-on
module enables installation of a non-certified application program.
Since the ability to install non-certified programs is placed in an
"add-on module", the natural question to ask is: will the computer's
owner have to pay a surcharge to install the software he or she wants
on the hardware he or she owns?
3) DRM to selectively enable and disable functionality
 ....The add-on module 300 may be examined for digital rights
indicia .... When digital rights indicia are present and the criteria
required are satisfied, the yes branch ...may be followed and the
add-on module started .... Should the digital rights criteria fail...
for example, if an expiration date has passed.... a notification may
be presented to the user indicating the add-on module was not started.
The notification ... may further include an opportunity to correct the
failure, for example, by purchasing an additional usage allocation.
While not spelled out in the application, the fact is that the module's DRM
attributes are checked periodically and on every system start allow
remote termination of access rights for reasons other than expiry of a
subscription. Thus, the entity administrating the digital rights
framework (the operating system publisher or an appointed 3rd party) will be able to
"punish" the user for actual or suspected transgressions of
a EULA by disabling the relevant functionality.
All operating system vendors are moving toward a more incremental model of OS delivery.
Recent IT press coverage of the Vista release has had as one of its
themes the widely-held opinion that
Vista will be the last OS of its kind (a monolithically-delivered
package) from Microsoft.
Here's but one example.
Speaking generally, there are undoubted benefits to both user and OS
provider in modularity.
From the users perspective, modularity allows him or her to mix and
match components, choosing
from several providers for each coarse functionality area. Unnecessary
components can be disabled,
reducing system resource consumption and improving system security and
reliability. As previously
mentioned, this is not a new technology. From the OS provider's
viewpoint, modularity allows
the OS as a whole to be sold on a more flexible basis and arguably
improves overall OS quality
by reducing unnecessary coupling between components.
There are areas, however, where what appears as a benefit to the end
user is not a benefit to
an OS provider, or at least one trying to maintain a monopoly market
position. By its very nature, modularity eases replacement of system
components. Other things being equal, one would expect the market to
naturally foster the appearance of 3rd party replacements for most if
not all the OS components. The operation of the free market would also
prevent artificial functionality restrictions (ones where
straightforward functionality is being turned off, rather than new
functionality being offered through genuine innovation) from being
viable as a business model. For example, if the basic window
management component of an OS only allowed for 8 top-level windows,
then a 3rd-party replacement component would soon appear which removed
In the monolithic model of OS delivery, a provider with dominant
market position can use the practice of
"bundling" to undermine competitors. If the basic installation of an
OS has component X pre-installed to deliver functionality Y, this
component enjoys an incumbency effect and thus reduces the likelihood
of competing components W & Z being investigated, let alone obtained
and installed. Switching to a model whereby component X has to be
actively chosen (and possibly purchased) by the user would, on the
face of it, improve the opportunities for W or Z to be chosen instead.
Modularity - real modularity - militates against bundling.
In this context, the ability of the core system to only allow approved
OS components to be installed appears
to be a mechanism whereby the OS provider can retain the benefits of
modularity from its perspective, while denying the end user his or her
corresponding benefits. At the very least, 3rd party replacement
components could expect to have to pay a de facto royalty to obtain
and maintain their "approved" status. The impact on FOSS-licensed
replacement components is obvious.
A possible scenario
So let us try to envisage what the total end-user experience is likely
to be in such a system.
Some years in the future, the owner of a new computer turns it on for
the first time and is welcomed
by - let's call it "Blister Basic Edition." This OS has almost no
can run a "get connected to the internet" wizard and then displays an
online store in a
simplified web browser (the browser does not allow any other site to
Although I refer to an online store, the first transaction does
involve more user expense.
He or she redeems a unique coupon code (received as part of the
purchase) which allows
him or her to install a number of additional modules. Compromises may
have to be made: perhaps
the user does not have enough "credit" to have both "enhanced" (i.e.
normal) disk performance
and connect two printers...
The DRM and certification features ensure that if the user wants
additional or improved
OS functionality (including security features) these can only
be obtained from the OS vendor or a vendor-approved 3rd party.
Subsequently, the Blister Update icon appears at regular intervals to
offer the user new, improved functionality. The OS updates are more frequent
and less dramatic -- in this respect Blister behaves more like Linux or
indeed (to an extent) Mac OSX. These updates are unlikely to be free.
Doubtless one will be able to purchase them on an as-is basis, but the
pricing structure will
be such that it seems much more compelling to buy, say, 3-year
subscriptions. One simple regular payment and the user can get all the
upgrades he or she
wants! However, the total payments spread over 3 years will probably
be more than the
original monolithic OS price -- otherwise the OS vendor would be making
Moreover, the user could now be required to pay for bugfixes, which
traditionally have been
free upgrades. The application explicitly proposes this and, with no
little audacity, claims it
as an end user benefit:
 ....In the area of operating system maintenance, service packs,
bug fixes, and patches have been included in the original purchase
price of an operating system for prior art systems. The use of an
add-on module for support of bug fixes, service packs, and patches
allows users to selectively pay for only the support that is of
interest to them.
Requiring users to pay for security fixes "of interest to them"
hardly seems the route to greater overall security on the internet.
Rolling upgrades and upgrade treadmills
If Blister is kept upgraded on a rolling basis like this, then in one
respect the user does benefit - no more "big bang" upgrades (rather
like Debian, you only install it once.)
From the OS provider's view, the rolling model, as well as yielding a
steady revenue stream, has two
market position benefits:
i) It gets rid of the "jumping off points". Upgrading from one major
version of an OS
to another (e.g XP to Vista)
is rarely a straightforward experience. It is a situation where a
vendor can lose customers -- either
because they decide to change platform instead of upgrading, or the
upgrade trashes their system and they change loyalties as a result. By removing
the "big bang" of a platform upgrade, there is no longer a "natural
point" for the user to try any other OS.
ii) If a user pays for 3 year's upgrades in advance, the sunk cost fallacy
will deter him or her from switching OS providers during that period.
Of course, as
the 3 years approaches the end, various tempting special renewal offers
will be presented to him or her by Blister Update. There is an obvious
mobile phone contracts here.
iii) Because additional modules have to be certified, the user
cannot remove modules whose functionality is purely for the benefit of
3rd parties (e.g.
targeted advertising, prevention of fair use of legitimately purchased
content) with whom
the OS vendor has a business relationship or agreement. The ability --
or threat -- of
remote disablement of functionality may also be relevant here.
All in all, it fits with an overall goal of turning your home PC from
an empowering tool into a "don't tamper" appliance - indeed, into a
device that you effectively lease (rather than own) that is useful
for little more than
delivering approved partner content and taking part in those harmless
online activities that don't endanger the OS vendor's revenue (or those of its
 ... Lastly, service providers or system operators who may be
providing computers on a pay-as-you-go or pay-per-use basis may be
able to limit installation of potentially harmful applications [DrS:
harmful to whom?] or hardware peripherals by restricting the
installation of required operating system add-on modules.
A model where the level of functionality of the OS can be purchased on
so fine-grained a basis has many other interesting (and disquieting)
possibilities, which cannot all be covered in this space. Since all
functionality enhancements have to pass ultimately through the
gatekeeper of the base OS vendor, this vendor gains a power of
patronage. For example, a blogger who passed favourable comment on one
of the OS vendor's products could find himself rewarded with a free
upgrade of a minor system component. The scope for mischief by a
unscrupulous OS vendor is also vast -- not that I make any particular