How Bill Gates Winsocked it to the opposition

You install Windows 95 ... and your Net access is disabled.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last week's news that Bill Gates is trying to move to centre stage on the Internet by setting up a series of joint ventures masks an immediate problem for Netsurfers.

The US Justice Department has been looking into allegations that the Plus! Pack Internet extension to Windows 95 was intentionally designed to disable the software of rival Net access providers. The hidden agenda, the conspiracy theorists believe, is to force people to access the Net via the Microsoft Network, pushing out competitors.

At the time of its launch, competitors such as CompuServe and Prodigy complained that bundling the Plus! Pack with Windows 95 would give Microsoft an unfair advantage in the Net access market. These same companies are now working with the US government to discover if their own Net software was deliberately blocked by Microsoft.

The current dispute centres on a software extension known as Windows Sockets, or Winsock. This is a driver that connects any Windows operating system with the Net access software. When Windows 95 is installed, it renames the old 16-bit Winsock file and inserts a new 32-bit Winsock. Consequently, any Net software not configured for 32-bit, Windows 95 operation will not function.

Most of the major players have now altered their software or introduced patches to fix the compatibility problem. Not surprisingly, therefore, Microsoft views accusations that the problems were intentional as more mud from the same pie.

"It's ridiculous to say this was done maliciously. We suffer as well if other companies' software do not work with ours," says Andrew Lees, Microsoft UK's director of desktop products.

Microsoft is not the only company to have faced such accusations. The mud is flying all over the place. People who used CompuServe's Netlauncher package on a Windows 3.1 platform for the first time suffered similar problems to those reported by Windows 95 users.

When it is installed, Netlauncher creates new Winsock files. But if users later try to dial up another Internet service, they will find they have to create new Winsock files. CompuServe protested loudly when it realised that it was suffering from the Windows 95 compatibility problem. Surely a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Not at all, says Michelle Moran, a CompuServe spokeswoman. "The Netlauncher software was designed for members who had never been on the Net before and so perhaps didn't even have Winsock." They have now released a patch that allows CompuServe subscribers to use other Net packages.

However, in the conspiracy-minded world of cyberspace, it is not surprising that there are some who refuse to believe the company's intentions were so benign. The stakes are so high in this power struggle that everyone is looking for a way to get ahead.

Where to go to solve your Winsock troubles:

Contact software manufacturers or your Net provider to get hold of Winsock 95 patches.

To follow the "debate" on Microsoft's plans and tips on how to deal with Winsock compatibility problems, check these newsgroups: