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"Another Minor Disturbance for Microsoft"

(written late, 11/22/99)

A long time ago, when the Microsoft vs. Government trial had just started, I wrote an essay about how it was mainly competitors whining about how they blew their competitive advantages against Microsoft. I don't know what I was smoking because I made it sound as though Microsoft WASN'T using monopolistic practices to their advantage.

Alright, maybe I've just changed my views on Microsoft since I wrote that 'Box in March of 1998. Having seen since then all the examples of intimidation towards AOL and Gateway and Intel, plus seeing distributors tremble in fear of losing their distribution licenses, all the while seeing the prices of Microsoft update packages hover from the $100-$300 range, I've definitely become more anti-Microsoft.

However, I DO maintain that other companies basically screwed up and looked at Microsoft as the scapegoat. Netscape Navigator DID start to suck, as I have always said, and Internet Explorer HAS pulled ahead of Navigator as far as usage goes. It's a far superior browser than the outdated Navigator 4.x version. Once I got my hands on IE 5.x, I was hooked. This browser never crashes. Seriously! And it actually supports things, unlike Navigator. Netscape is of course a dying company of its own greed and ignorance, and AOL buying it out did nothing to help its already crumbling corporate culture. I read they have a 50% turnover ratio over there. Mozilla 5, the next Netscape/Mozilla Project offering, is supposed to be astoundingly good. So...where is it?

So here we are, almost two years later, with the judge in the case releasing findings of fact clearly naming Microsoft a monopoly. It was interesting to see reactions from various groups of people on the issue. I first heard the news on the stock trading IRC channels, and understandably, most of them thought the government shouldn't have been involved with Microsoft and all and that this was a crippling blow for capitalism because it was punishing success. Microsoft's stock went up quite a bit during the trial, and only sold off a bit after the findings of fact were released. Wall Street for the most part probably sees this as one more way the government is trying to interfere with our lives. Those money-grubbing asses.

The computer industry was extremely enthusiastic about the decision. These being the people who actually USE computers, they understood long ago that Microsoft was a monopoly and its mere presence would hinder many possibly creative and innovative companies from blooming fully. Computer enthusiasts and technicians, who are strongly in favor of Open Source like Linux, saw this as Linux's big chance. Wall Street, which really doesn't play favorites, saw Microsoft's competitors as huge buying opportunities and all companies like Oracle and RedHat soared the following Monday after the facts were released. But mainly, it was Linux that won out here; it took a big step towards credibility. How can an OS that's completely open source and free become successful? Because what a great number of highly skilled, individualistic programmers can accomplish together is far more than what any closed source, profit-motivated company can do. Microsoft knows this, and that's why it tried to downplay Linux, just as it has with Java and the Internet and various other technologies that it never had any chance of controlling.

I personally believe in the Linux movement. I don't know if Linux in itself will succeed, but the idea behind it has definitely impacted the whole industry. People are tired of having to wait on companies to release fixes to drivers. With open source, anyone can go in and fix a problem. And then build upon it. And release their own version with its own feature set. It's essentially the same dynamic that makes the Internet work.

That being said, I have no plans on switching to any other OS besides Windows any time soon. Windows is the most dominant and popular platform and it supports all my hardware and software. That doesn't mean that Windows is the product of a monopoly. Indeed, Wall Street folks who insist that Microsoft being nailed by the government will kill the one true standardized platform are right -- Windows has become common ground for computer users. However, I do not think we're better off because of Microsoft than we would have been with, say, an Open Source movement. Microsoft has done nothing to standardize much of anything except by forcing people to use one OS. Any competitors to the software on Windows have had to face delayed source distribution, extension modifications (ask WordPerfect), and that sort of dirty behavior. Windows is the most used OS right now because Microsoft spent all its energy on making it the only OS you COULD use, not because it was the BEST OS (the premise an argument for capitalism would be based on).

As I look at what the court will decide to do to Microsoft in order to punish it, I really don't see that what it could do would hurt Microsoft very much. I mean, most people say splitting up Microsoft is the best thing to do. This didn't hurt AT&T very much, even though that's a slightly different situation. Some say Gates might even WANT to split up Microsoft. It would allow him to specialize the company's efforts even more and make each unit even more powerful in the long run. And of course slapping fines and ordering Microsoft to pay back customers isn't going to do all that much either.

There is only one thing I see that could really benefit everyone and harm Microsoft: release the source code to the Windows OS (NT, 2000, 98, et al). Microsoft has pushed its weight around because of its ability to hold back certain parts of its OS to competitors and to customers. It uses its OS as leverage. This is its weapon of war. Microsoft's other divisions are nowhere near as powerful as its OS division, and actually produce legitimate products. Take for example its hardware unit -- I love Microsoft mice and they just released a mouse without a rolling ball, the first large-scale change to mice in years. Microsoft also has joysticks and other peripherals. Microsoft's gaming unit, although not my favorite, releases regular games that can actually sell pretty well through their own merit. That sort of thing.

Make Windows' source free to all. Let all the programmers who make a living (and even those who don't) modify and fix Windows themselves. All those security bugs that admins lose sleep over can be fixed; all those memory leaks and missing features can be dealt with. Making Windows' source open to all programmers might just be one of the best things to ever happen to the computer industry. Can you imagine the possibilities? We're talking about taking the most widely used OS on the planet and letting millions hack with it in new ways in order to improve it. This would be Linux, with actual users. THEN we could talk about actually implementing standards the way they were meant to be. Then we could streamline the OS to make it faster and more efficient, more robust and less bloated.

At the same time it would effectively hurt Microsoft for its monopolistic practices. Microsoft would basically have to compete on its own achievements instead of using its OS as the main hub to hinder competitors in many non-OS-related markets like software and hardware. This would strongly hurt investor sentiment towards Microsoft, which up to now has laughed at the government and viewed it as a harmless, inert force.

I don't know if the government could ever do something as big as this. No doubt there would be appeals and huge protests that would delay the actual release of the source code. It could take another decade. By then, who knows what could happen in the OS fighting pit? And would the government have enough balls to do something like this? Doubtful. The prosecutors have said they're going to push hard for the greatest punishment possible against Microsoft, but who's to say what that is?

All I know is that we're on the verge of something that COULD change things for the better, but the way it looks now is that nothing will come of this, and the computer industry will go on as it has been. Microsoft will rule and everyone else will struggle to just make a dent in it. And Linux and other alternatives will continue to hang on in the background, cute but impotent.

I hope that's not how it will be, but that's definitely the path of least resistance. I want the underdog to win, because it will mean the efforts of separate people have overcome the greedy efforts of one monopolistic company, without anyone's outside help.

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