Microsoft Marches On

The New York Times – Op-Ed, June 25 1998

The state and Federal officials accusing Microsoft of anti-competitive practices have found themselves in a precarious battle with two fronts. The Federal courts, as evidenced by Tuesday’s appellate decision freeing Microsoft to bundle its Web browsing software with the Windows operating system, will need to be convinced that the company’s newly integrated products violate any antitrust laws at all. And the court of public opinion will soon want proof that this enforcement of free-market capitalism will somehow make for a better digital future.

More important, the prosecutors do not realize they have been drawn into a phantom battle. While they think they are preventing Microsoft from using its Windows monopoly to gain control over other areas, they are merely fighting for concessions that soon won’t matter to Bill Gates at all.
In the name of competition and consumer choice, the Government wants to make it illegal for Microsoft to demand that computer makers include Internet Explorer or any other software application as a condition for distributing Windows. It also wants assurance that Microsoft’s competitors will have ample opportunity to write and distribute their own Windows software.

But what happens when there is no such thing as software? Thanks to rivals like Netscape, which were threatening to expand their programs into entire operating systems, Microsoft got the bright idea of expanding its operating system into programs. In the Windows future, users will no longer open a separate program for word processing, spreadsheet calculations or Internet browsing. The same system window will do all those things. Only the menu bar might change.

In other words, the operating system will not be the platform from which a computer user launches software; it will be the software. Instead of buying new programs, people will simply add functionality to the system, much in the way they now download plug-ins like video players. What we think of as software packages will no longer be “launched” with a mouse click, but will be called up automatically when needed.
That’s why Microsoft has nothing to fear in the unlikely event that it loses its battle with the Justice Department. The Internet Explorer icon is merely a placeholder for the program’s impending absorption by Windows — a way to keep Netscape from setting its own Web browsing standards while Microsoft integrates the Internet into its overall system. And the company will apply this same strategy to cable television, palmtop devices and anything else that can be run on a Windows platform.

Microsoft is simply hoping that the current lawsuit takes long enough for the synergy between its different frontiers to take effect. Once that happens, Microsoft will have won the war — even if it had to lose a few meaningless battles along the way.

It is unlikely the Justice Department will be able to head off such a future. Worse, the approach is misguided; it makes Government into the enemy of every kid shouting, “I want my digital MTV.”
Instead, we might best treat Microsoft, Intel or any other company in a position to develop our digital future the way we did cable television providers in the 1970’s. If they want to become the architects of our information infrastructure, then they will have to demonstrate their willingness to promote the public interest.

For cable television, that meant public access programming and reasonable rates for basic services. For systems architects, it could mean on-line libraries, educational provisions or open coding standards. What will serve the public interest is not greater competition between information architects, but greater cooperation and greater accountability.

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of “Media Virus” and the forthcoming “Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say.”