Microsoft and the Rest of Us

Why do programmers hate Microsoft? After all, there's nothing wrong with trying to make money in the computer industry. Why should one company be vilified for doing what everyone else wishes they could do? Isn't Microsoft just trying to make a profit like the rest of us?

Not quite. Microsoft is certainly trying to profit, but not like everyone else: the missing ingredient is self-restraint. We all understand that for society to function, we must exhibit this quality in our personal lives, but sometimes we forget it is just as important in public life. Self-restraint means resisting temptation to push the envelope, because you recognize that the envelope was agreed on for good reasons.

Microsoft pushes the envelope by trying to control standards so it can lock in customers. It is not so much that it dislikes competing "fairly", as that it fears competing at all. Microsoft doesn't want any playing field, unless it can be both referee and defending champion, and its relentless drive to be the sole and only vendor of operating software for personal computers has brought it very close to that goal. Fortunately, our society long ago recognized that such snowballing accumulations of power were a weakness of open markets, and we enacted anti-trust laws to deal with the problem.

Some people don't think that anti-trust action is appropriate in this case. It's easy to regard Microsoft as blameless, merely using its market share the same way anyone would. It's also easy to believe Microsoft's claims that they're path-breakers at the leading edge of digital technology, whose creativity would be stifled by government over-regulation. These opinions, being so understandable, deserve detailed rebuttal.

Imagine this scenario: a regional supplier of electric current decides to get into the stereo business, and starts burning out its competitors' products by changing the rate at which it delivers alternating current. That would be intolerable, right? A clear case of using forced market share in one area to remove choice in another. But this is just what Microsoft has been doing! By controlling the operating system, it controls the substrate on which other software manufacturers are forced to build their products. They have no choice in the matter. And when threatening products come along -- Netscape Navigator, for example, which offers users a non-Microsoft window on the Internet, or Sun's Java programming language, which potentially offers an alternative platform to Windows 95 -- Microsoft responds like a classic monopoly: it tweaks the current.

As it happens, Netscape's grievances are being addressed by recent Justice Department actions, while Sun's plight prompted that company to bring a lawsuit against Microsoft. But neither should have been in these positions in the first place, and wouldn't have been if Microsoft didn't insist on abusing its position as a supplier of something very analogous to a public utility.

Nor are these isolated examples -- rather, they are the pattern which has always delivered Microsoft's success. Time after time Microsoft has leveraged an existing monopolistic base to gain control of a market which was being served perfectly well by an open, undominated standards process. Yes, new features and programming interfaces and standards pour forth from Redmond at a furious pace, but this is not because of customer demand. It is because Microsoft knows that by giving the rug sharp, unpredictable tugs from time to time, it can keep everyone -- especially software developers -- slightly off-balance, scrambling to keep up with a rate of change defined not by market pressures or genuine creativity, but by one company's need to hold all the cards no matter what the cost to consumer choice.

Anti-trust scrutiny is appropriate in this case for exactly the reasons those laws were originally enacted: a single company is in the position of being able to dominate an entire market, bringing competitors to their knees not through the superior quality of its products, but through the well-known dynamics of open markets, which, if unchecked, will always allow the larger to eat the smaller, and thus grow larger yet. For not only can the larger afford to keep fighting longer, it can also persuade third parties to choose its side or face the consequences. This latter ability is particularly insidious in an industry so dependent on cross-vendor standards to maintain interoperability.

It is tempting to shrug and say "Yes, but if it were not Microsoft in this position, it would be someone else. They are merely behaving in the only way they can, given their position as operating-system vendor." This is a seductive argument, but actually they could behave considerably better than they do. Other vendors have dominating market shares (Cisco Systems, for example, in network routers), but haven't acquired a reputation for forcing their proprietary standards on an unwilling public, nor for bending the public standards until no one knows what's public and what's proprietary. Microsoft is exceptional because it is never willing to give up control, even though it is very clear that no one else wants a single party to have control.

The Internet has a proven ability to settle on good, workable cross-platform standards by consensus. But Microsoft still tries to force us into doing things their way. Unlike other software vendors, they implement their own proprietary protocols before getting around to implementing public standards (i.e., ActiveX before Java, WINS before DNS, and does anyone even remember that document-embedding format they killed off?). This undermines perfectly good standards, even as it fails to establish Microsoft's way as a publicly available solution. The end result is that overall interoperability is made more difficult. Computer users face a choice between using only Microsoft products, or dealing with the headache of making their Microsoft products work with everything else. Don't think for a minute that this is not deliberate -- Microsoft knows full well the effects of what they do. That's why they do it!

Were it not for Microsoft's iron grip, we might well have long ago settled on a workable, public operating system standard that would allow developers to write truly portable software without worrying about whose monopoly they're buying into. This is not fantasy -- it has already happened in the Unix world, but Microsoft's influence has so far fatally hampered any possibility of an equally healthy standards process in the world of mainstream personal computers.

The notion that regulating Microsoft might stifle progress is also mistaken. If Microsoft were the source of any interesting progress in the computer industry, this might be a plausible argument. But let's briefly review some software history: what are the most important innovations of the last decade or so in computing? Off the tops of our heads, most of us would probably list the mouse, graphical user interfaces, networking in general and email in particular, certainly the World Wide Web. And how many of these bright ideas were first developed, or even brought to maturity, at Microsoft? Not a single one. Microsoft was actually a latecomer in all these areas, waiting until market pressure spelled out the future for them before acting.

Or perhaps you wonder if Microsoft has at least broken new ground in more esoteric areas, making contributions too technical to be noticed by the average computer user, but acknowledged among programmers? But you'd be disappointed again: there are none, at least none that would be called significant by anyone except a Microsoft employee. For all its treasure-laden coffers and glitzy, look-ma-we're-inventing-the-future public relations campaigns, it remains an essentially conservative company, watching others dive in while it tests the waters with its little toe, and rarely developing new technologies -- though often acquiring them by purchase: even MS-DOS, their first major product and hardly an innovation by anyone's definition, was not created in-house, but bought from outside.

What comedy, then, that Microsoft is so often referred to as an ``industry leader''. Its corporate policy is to follow, for which I suppose we should be glad, except that it's a particularly late and ungainly follower, throwing its weight around with little awareness that there are standards of good behavior even in a for-profit world.

There are indeed new things under the sun these days, but Microsoft isn't one of them. It's an uncomfortably familiar monopoly, no different in principle or practice from all the ones we've seen before. As for the creative genius being trampled by insensitive anti-trust watchdogs -- forget about it. The cutting-edge stuff isn't going on at Microsoft and never has been. Instead of worrying about Microsoft's problems, worry about yours: imagine a world where you could shop for operating systems the way you shop for anything else, and where you wouldn't have to pay an upgrade tax to Bill Gates every few years just to continue using your computer.

Scary, isn't it? Mr. Gates apparently thinks so.

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