An interesting aspect of the Sherman Antitrust Laws, of which Microsoft is charged with breaking in the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit, is that they deal with harm to consumers, not to competitors. How badly Netscape was disadvantaged is irrelevant — the fact that consumers weren’t able to choose which browser they wanted to use is the issue. But the Netscape case was only one example of many. For several years, consumers have had little real choice as to what operating system (OS) manage hardware resources, which Graphical User Interface (GUI) would aid their interaction, what database would store their information or even what word-processor would create their documents. Some would try alternatives, but they were never easy to get and the “rebel users” would somehow always have trouble interacting with those who were using “the standard”.
The DOJ have been successful in showing a pattern of behavior in which Microsoft will go to whatever lengths necessary to protect its lucrative desktop franchise. Since Judge Jackson, hearing the case, has so completely agreed with the DOJ in his Findings of Fact, it is expected the remedies will be quite strong. Even if a settlement is negotiated first, it will re-establish competition to the market or else the DOJ will simply not agree to the terms.
What this will mean to consumers is increased choice in the marketplace, a benefit already being seen. As it became obvious that Microsoft was going to lose the case, a few manufacturers of computers (OEMs) began to offer alternative operating systems like Linux and BeOS pre-installed on their computers. For those OEMs whose customers wanted the Microsoft operating system, a few even (gasp) altered the first power-up sequence to present helpful information to their customers before passing control to the MS-OS, something explicitly disallowed in the OEM agreements with Microsoft.
What were once considered “alternative” choices of OSs and applications will gain (or regain) market share based on capability and merit. Individuals and organizations will choose the tools which best fit their requirements, rather than what is already installed or what everyone else is using. Users of different software packages from completely independent publishers will be able to exchange data seamlessly without knowing, nor caring, what the others are using.
Because of increased network bandwidth becoming available, software will be easy to download and evaluate. Most software won’t even cost any money, but will simply be given away in exchange for market data or advertising opportunities. Further down the time-line, applications won’t entirely reside on the user’s computer, but will instead share the load between the client and a remote server to render the requested services.
The operating system and applications of today should be viewed as the rail-road line and cars of the late 19th century. It has been demonstrated that it benefits society and commerce as a whole if there is open access to all of the railway track, and if the railway cars and all the tracks agree on the displacement of the wheels (or, in other words, inter-operate). Obviously there were absolutely no technical hurdles to this goal, only the resistance of by-gone business models and the same holds true in the software industry.
As of this writing, AOL just bought Time-Warner, Microsoft settled their antitrust case with Caldera for a cool $150 million (officially, many are speculating the true cost was much higher), and IBM made the major announcement that they will be supporting Linux across their entire server line. Inprise will release Interbase 6.0 as Open Source, and Inprise and Corel both plan releases of their major products for Linux early this year.
But despite all this motion forward, or perhaps because of it, the DOJ’s case is still as relevant as ever. Software is today what the rail lines were long ago: the key to our economic future. It is imperative that no one have enough control to fore-close the next great business idea, and consumers have the opportunity to a choise.
Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.