Flight of the Baby-Bills

Posted to NewsTrolls November 6, 1999

Let me be frank about this. I am typing this article in a little word processor called NoteTab on a Windows 95 platform.

I have used Windows since it came out, and Windows 95 since it came out. At work I use a couple of NTs and our main website runs off yet another NT, powered by Microsoft's Internet Information Server.

True, I still use Netscape when I browse, but it is becoming a labour of frustration, not of love. I want to use DHTML on my pages, but DHTML crashes Netscape, especially when it runs under Windows 98. I'm on my third reboot of the day - Netscape's not much of a browser when the links stop working.

I'm not alone in my frustrations. Jeffrey Zeldman, in this week's A List Apart, launched a passionate plea for browsers which don't crash. And readers are probably familiar with Dave Whitinger's plaint on Linux Today.

So Judge Jackson ruled yesterday that Microsoft is a monopoly. I could have told him that - as my computer comes to dominate my life I find my life dominated by Microsoft.

But - so what? Many things which dominate my life are monopolies. My government is a monopoly. So is the gas company, which heats my home. The electricity which powers my computer is produced by a monopoly. Local phone service is a monopoly. I have learned to live with monopolies; the fact that my computer is subject to one is no surprise to me at all.

The talk will now start, even on MSNBC, about whether Microsoft should be split apart. And while the predictable doom and gloom is emitting from Redmond, we've been through all this before - which explains why there's two phone companies instead of one. Breaking Microsoft into component companies - which, over the space of a few years, will acquire each other - will not solve anything.

Because when all is said and done, when all the dust settles and the OS industry breaks up into a bevy of tiny baby-Bills, one thing remains true: my Netscape still won't work, and my computer will still crash when I try to surf MSNBC. And while that site's David Silverberg tries to portray the debate as being one between efficiency and competition, the truth is, what we have right now either way is not efficient and never has been.

Here's what it boils down to: I tolerate the other monopolies in my life because they work. The gas gets delivered. The power remains uninterrupted. The police patrol the streets, the fire department extinguishes blazes, and even the telephone works most of the time. I can count on these services - in Canada's cold climate, I depend on them for my life - and with the exception of little things like a massive ice storm, these services are uninterrupted.

Not so my browser - which crashed again, making today's total four reboots. Not so my computer in general, which struggles mightily each time it tries to load a simple word processor or spreadsheet. Not so my internet connection, which even though being ADSL still heaves and huffs through a massive 100K download.

No, Microsoft's crime is not being a monopoly. It's crime consists in its being an inefficient monopoly. Every time your browser crashes or you come face to face with the blue screen of death, you curse Microsoft, not for being a monopoly, but for being so bad at it.

There is yet another argument against the government's forced breakup of Microsoft - it amounts to massive government intervention in an industry where the prevailing sentiment is that government should stay at a respectful difference.

Oh, sure, there was the IBM antitrust, launched in 1969 and eventually abandoned in 1982, but if anything, that case displayed the folly of regulating the industry. The case was abandoned, not because IBM won or lost, but because its market monopoly had become obsolete.

In principle, the idea of the government regulating the internet is a bad thing, not because of any lofty anti-government pro-anarchy sentiment, but because the internet is just not the sort of thing which can be regulated. As The Industry Standard's Lawrence Lessig observed yesterday, the internet is the sort of thing which does not allow the term 'allow'.

He writes,

What is allowed in the Internet is what users demand. The innovations that are permitted are those that users find useful. No central or strategic actor gets to decide how the network will evolve. The network is constituted to disable that sort of control.

Well - yes and no. Lessig is quite right when he observes that the net defies centralized control. But he should take note of the fact that when some company attempts to exert centralized control, the net ceases to work. It is for just this reason that other Industry Standard writers, Greg Simon and Rich Bond, argue that emerging broadband monopolies will impair the growth of the internet and alienate consumers.

What we need to do is not to break up Microsoft, but to end Microsoft's monopoly on its technology.

Ironically, the best answer to our current dilemma is to get government less involved in computer technologies, not more involved. For without government intervention and support, Microsoft could not maintain the stranglehold it does today.

Microsoft rules because of its proprietary technology - in fact, the debate concering Active-X, MS HTML extensions, and even (I remeber the good old days) Microsoft-C is that Microsoft, by virtue of its privileged position, is able to make applications which work better on Windows, and to make Windows disable applications not made by Microsoft.

Netscape's apparent inability to function under Windows 98, for example, is hardly Netscape's fault (Netscape has many other faults, but this isn't one of them). Windows 98 essentially disables Netscape, forcing even die-hard Netscape supporters like myself to abandon Marc Andreessen's venerable browser.

This would not be possible were the government to cease enforcing Microsoft's patents and trade secrets. As a commentator just the other day said, if the government did not work on Bill Gates's behalf, Microsoft would have to hire a fleet of jet aircraft to enforce its copyright.

It is no coincidence that CNBC's Eric Fleming argues that the worst case for Microsoft would be for it to be forced to auction its Windows code. Worst case? Hardly.

Worst case for Microsoft would be to have the government abandon it completely. Break open the gates to the Redmond campus. Make public those Microsoft DLLs and improbably titled subroutines (make_bill_get_a_life()). Turn loose the hackers! Reverse-engineer the heck out of it!

Microsoft could survive, but it would be forced to write effective - and dare I hope, efficient? - software. It would have to work cooperatively with other software companies instead of grinding them under its proprietary jackboot. Its claim to fame would have to be that it writes better applications, and not merely applications which work better on Windows.

And finally (and I write this in a hushed breath, so as not to tweak the fates), Microsoft would even have to comply with global internet standards. If, for example, it were to add some functionality to web servers and browsers, it would have to do so in a way which did not disable half the websites and browsers in the world.

The ball is now squarely in the DOJ's court. After months and years of deliberations, we can only hope they have learned not just about Microsoft but about the nature of the internet as a whole.

We need some clear thinking from Judge Jackson, some wisdom which stretches beyond the pale of the cloistered courtroom and which appeases the hearts and minds of internet users everywhere. We need a ruling which does not close the internet, but one which opens it, and lets the fresh air rush in.

We need to end Bill's copyright, not his monopoly.

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