Pulling the rug out from under an internet protocol

Back in the early days of the World-Wide Web, as it was then known, there were a lot of competing media streaming protocols, many of them proprietary. (Actually, there are still a lot of competing media streaming protocols, many of them proprietary.)

To improve the experience for the end user, a Microsoft product cut a deal with one of the many companies that did streaming media: In exchange for a considerable licensing fee, the company provided a precompiled binary that the product would use in order to stream media from their service. That way, users would not have to go and download the custom media player control. It came built-in. (Given that at this time, dial-up was still a common way to get access to the Internet, pre-installing the media player saved the user a lot of time and hassle.)

Shortly after the Microsoft product was released, the company made an incompatible change to their streaming protocol. The binary that Microsoft paid a lot of money for no longer worked. Instead, the user received a message saying, "This program cannot play the media stream. Click here to download the latest Contoso Media Player." And of course, the Contoso player came with a bunch of shovelware from companies who paid to have their software included with the media player.

Sure, the user got an awful experience, and Microsoft paid a lot of money in order to redistribute something useless, but I bet the sales people at that company made a huge bonus: They managed to get paid twice, one from Microsoft to distribute what turned out to be advertising, and again from the companies who wanted their trial software distributed with the Contoso player.

Reminder: One of the ground rules for this site is "Don't try to guess the identity of a program or company whose name I did not reveal."

Comments (34)

  1. skSdnW says:

    Did the license not allow for updates MS could push through Windows Update? Or did it include updates but only for a specific protocol version?

    1. henke37 says:

      This was clearly before windows update.

    2. Antonio Rodríguez says:

      IIRC, those were the times before Windows Update – at least the modern version. Good luck hoping users spent part of their dial-up time chasing OS updates and downloading them. The faster modems of the time (V92 at 56 Kbps) could download 20 MB in an hour, and many users had to pay for their calls to the ISP, so it costed people money to download big files. Not to mention that, if you didn’t have a second phone line, you couldn’t use the phone while connected to the Internet – and many people didn’t have cell phones back then.

      When Windows NT 4 SP3 came out, it was a huge (for the time) 30 MB download. I had to wait until past midnight and then keep the PC connected to the Internet for three hours (I still had a 33 Kbps modem, at about 10 MB/hour) to download it.

      1. kantos says:

        My father would download service packs at work where they had an ISDN line and share it with the office. He’d then burn it to CD and bring it home (the office was fine with this).

      2. Antonio Rodríguez says:

        Yes, those were the time where burning a CD and driving home was the fastest way of transferring large files. USB thumb drives didn’t exist (and many computers didn’t have USB, or supported only the base 100 KB/s speed) and consumer Internet was slow (dual-channel ISDN only gave you 128 Kbps, and a “professional” T1, which costed way more than most business were prepared to pay, had a speed of 1.5 Mbps).

        1. Scarlet Manuka says:

          That’s if you had ready access to a CD burner. Some of us were stuck with the “box of floppies” solution!

  2. Antonio Rodríguez says:

    Sadly, this was common in the 90s Internet, the time right before the dot com bubble. Companies saw a market with a huge growth and that evolved so fast that users were always trying new products. Many of those companies abused the users’ trust and filled their systems with junkware that made their systems slow as tar. And do you guess who got the blame? Hint: its name start with an “M”, ends with an “t”, and contains an “s” which pundits like to substitute with a Dollar sign…

    Of course, all of that led to false growth, useful only for luring investors. This ultimately led to a bubble, which burst when the investors started to learn the truth.

    By the way: we old timers don’t need to guess the name of the product. The case was well known in its day.

  3. Peter says:

    How did this not result in a giant lawsuit?

    1. Whenever Microsoft sues somebody, Microsoft always looks like the bad guy, regardless of merits. For example: Microsoft v. Eric Lundgren.

      1. DWalker07 says:

        Microsfot’s page https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2018/04/27/the-facts-about-a-recent-counterfeiting-case-brought-by-the-u-s-government/ says, twice, that Microsoft did not bring this case. So, Microsoft did not sue.

        1. See, Microsoft didn’t even file the lawsuit, but they’re still painted as the bad guy.

  4. shawn says:

    I’m guessing this lead to fewer and fewer deals like this over time, yes?

    1. Brian says:

      If I had to guess, I’d guess that Microsoft never made another deal with whoever supplied the “Contoso Media Player” software. That relationship probably went up in smoke.

  5. jon says:

    Would things have been very different if Microsoft had licenced the source code?

    Presumably it would have started at -100 points and there would have been no resources to update it to the new protocol :)

    1. How does having the source code to v1 of the protocol enable support for the v2? Are you saying it’s a simple matter of changing #define PROTOCOL_VERSION 1 to #define PROTOCOL_VERSION 2?

      1. The_Assimilator says:

        We are dealing with a company that thought it was a good idea to charge Microsoft a lot of money for what essentially turned out to be a middle finger; it does seem plausible that a company run by such morons would make that idiotic kinda of mistake…

        As for the company, no need to guess – there was effectively only one big streaming media company in the 90s. At least, only one that would pull this kinda s**t and think they could get away with it forever… considering nobody uses their product anymore and nobody younger than voting age even knows it, looks like karma did in fact come back to bite.

        1. Sam says:

          The funny thing is if you trace the origins of the Big Modem-era Streaming Media Company That No Longer Exists (which may or may not have anything to do with this story), the goal was to stream very liberal media. It’s even expressed in company’s name.

        2. morlamweb says:

          Suppose that Microsoft did license the source code for the Contoso MEdia Player and that the protocol change was something trivial like a version number. You still have the problem of distributing the updated player to users in the days before a push-based Windows Update service. If you were somehow successful in distributing this updated player (maybe bundling it with an IE update?), then Contoso could come out with a more substantive protocol change, and then you’ve got Microsoft engineers using their time to figure out the new protocol and implement it in the now Microsoft fork of the media player. Let alone the legalities of modifying licensed source code and distributing your own binaries…

  6. skSdnW says:

    Windows 98 had Windows Update out of the box and 95 & NT 4 got it when you installed IE4 so which time frame are you actually talking about? Since you mention Microsoft Update I assume we are not talking about Windows but some other product and then I can see why it would be a problem. But the question still stands, did the license allow for updates and if over the internet was not a thing, could it be part of a service pack?

    1. Antonio Rodríguez says:

      At that time, Windows Update didn’t have push notifications. It was just a web application, similar to the current Windows Catalog. Users had to manually open Windows Update and search manually for the updates, download them and then find the downloaded installer (a problem for most novice users) and execute it. In practice, most users never used it.

      All those problems led Microsoft to create the “modern” Windows Update, with a service running in the background that notified the user when updates were available, and which automated the process of downloading and installing them. But it didn’t appear until Windows Me and didn’t get mainstream until Windows XP (October 2001).

      1. The MAZZTer says:

        I set up an XP SP3 VM a couple weeks ago for experimentation. Fun fact: Windows Update doesn’t work out of the box. You have to download and install IE6 manually to get it to work (XP SP3 comes with IE4 or 5 or something).

        Ahh old Windows Update is nostalgic. Still works too. For now at least.

        1. skSdnW says:

          That’s wrong, IE4 shipped with 98, IE5 with 2000 and IE6 with XP. Windows Update might require a update of itself before it starts working but not a new major IE version.

          1. kantos says:

            IIRC this is the issue, you need to train it to look at update.microsoft.com and tell it you want automatic updates

        2. Antonio Rodríguez says:

          Windows XP RTM (pre-SP1) came with Internet Explorer 6 and the Windows Update service out of the box. Back in the day it worked without problem. But nowadays it’s different. Microsoft ended the extended support for XP SP3 on April 2014, and while they still maintain the machinery for updating it (there is still support for a non-consumer version of XP, the POS Edition), it’s now tricky to convince plain XP to download updates. It’s also useless, as there have been no security updates for years, so you are not protected from current treats.

        3. xcomcmdr says:

          Real facts (I use/install XP all the time) :
          Windows XP was shipped with IE6.

          Windows XP SP2 updated it to “IE6 SP2”

          For a time, you could download a stand-alone installer for IE8 for Windows XP from Microsoft. Now I can’t find it, unless I go to 3rd party websites. But it’s installed via Windows Update eventually.

          When you install XP SP3, Windows Update first downloads and applies an update for itself. After a reboot, it begins to download the rest of the updates.

          You can still download a stand alone installer for WMP11 for Windows XP :

          It is not available through Windows Update.

          That is all for now.

  7. SimonRev says:

    I don’t think anyone needs to guess who this company was. If you lived through those days you know exactly who is being referenced. If you didn’t, you can just be grateful you didn’t have to deal with it.

  8. MarcK4096 says:

    I’m sure these days Microsoft is sure to include a clause in the licensing agreement to protect against situations like this.

  9. John Styles says:

    In the early days of consumer access to the Internet etc. I bought a compiler for the (classic) Mac (from a 3rd party tools vendor) and paid the money for a CD-ROM to avoid having to download it over dial-up (think it might have been free to download). What came was
    a) a box
    b) a CD-ROM in the box
    c) a note saying ‘this software doesn’t work, download the latest version over the internet’

    1. Brian says:

      For what it’s worth, my first dealings with Microsoft as a consumer (I had used their Z-80 assembler professionally) was buying a copy of Word v1.05 for the Mac in the mid-80s. There was a computer store near me that was having a clear-out of “Open-box” software. What came in the box was one of two manuals, the serial number card and no CD. I phoned up Microsoft, they apologized (which surprised me – it wasn’t their fault) and rushed me a CD. I was impressed. I was also impressed that something as complicated as Word could run on a 128 kbyte (yeah, that’s a “k”) Mac. Apple’s MacWrite v2 wouldn’t run on they hardware they’d sold me).

    2. Scarlet Manuka says:

      As recently as a few years ago I made a point of buying a game on DVD (so that I wouldn’t have to do a multi-GB download which would use up a significant chunk of my then fairly small data cap). I didn’t care about online or multiplayer stuff, I just wanted to play the single-player campaign on my own PC. Unfortunately, after installing it from the DVD, the first thing it did when it ran was to download the latest version and install it. There was no way to avoid this step, or to start playing the game and have it update in the background. And the update download was about the same size as the original installation, so in the end I saved nothing.

  10. pc says:

    I don’t know what it says about me or about how times may have changed, but when I first read “In exchange for a considerable licensing fee” I thought that it was the streaming media company that paid Microsoft to distribute the binary with Windows, as they would have the advantage over their streaming media competitors that users wouldn’t need to download something separate. And then I thought the incompatible change was just really poor management at the company until the next sentence there the story says “Microsoft paid a lot of money”.

    I tend to doubt that Microsoft would pay a lot of money for something like this now.

    1. cheong00 says:

      The internet speed is getting faster so downloading software on demand is not as painful as it was now.

      And btw, even if those are bundled, most probably by the first time you connect to the internet, you need to download update to address the vulnerability found between the RTM date and your installation anyway.

  11. osexpert says:

    You really can’t blame Contoso here. Were they supposed to never update\improve their protocol just because Microsoft for some bizarre reason was throwing money at them to include some binary in Windows? Contoso was probably just as confused as I am right now, but off course they took the money (I would too).

    1. cheong00 says:

      If v2 released ***before*** Microsoft released the product, it would be courtesy to ship Microsoft a library that supports v2 and let Microsoft decide whether to update their installation media to include it.

      Actually if v2 is under development when Microsoft negotiate the deal with them, a honest sales would tell the Microsoft representative about it and add some provision statement (possibly with extra fee) on how to deal with it. Maybe they can give a pre-release SDK to Microsoft so the media player can code against it, and probably delay the release of the Microsoft product to match the release date of v2 to the product can support v2 directly.

      I seriously doubt that the Contoso is the one being confused here.

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