Confused by Microsoft case? Consider Chinese food

CIOL Bureau
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By David Lawsky


LUXEMBOURG - One key part of Microsoft's antitrust court hearing last week involved an obscure concept known as work group server protocols, which lay out what experts call the rules and grammar of online information exchange.

The European Commission has told Microsoft to provide the protocols to rival makers of work group servers. The Court of First Instance is considering the company's appeal against that ruling.

The workings of what one might call "Chinese restaurant protocols" may help explain the importance of computer protocols.


Chinese restaurants deal with clients, who sit at tables waiting to eat while servers go from table to table taking orders and delivering food.

In the case of computer protocols, the clients are personal computers, operated by Microsoft's near-monopoly Windows system. The PCs send requests to central computers, known as servers, to validate passwords, provide files and print documents, among other tasks.

Chinese restaurant servers, like computer servers, follow protocols -- that is, rules and custom of interaction -- in meeting the needs of the clients.

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For example, clients are served in the order they came in, unless they have reservations. All clients at the same table want their meals at the same time.

Menu items may be designated by number as well as description, a familiar code to Chinese restaurant clients. Egg fried rice might be Number 18 and General Tsao's Chicken Number 14.

But if someone calling from home for take-out has an old menu, the code could be wrong. The old number 14 was sweet-and-sour pork, and the caller winds up with General Tsao's Chicken.

Like the Chinese restaurant, computer servers deal with clients in groups or individually, prioritize requests and deliver items to clients.


The European Commission found that Microsoft, in effect, issues a new menu that sometimes changes some of the numbers when it releases a new version of its operating system.

Servers from rival companies no longer know which item on the menu corresponds to which action the client wants.

Some protocols work, some only partially and some not at all. And partial compatibility, like serving the wrong dishes, is not enough, the Commission says.