Will Microsoft lawsuit really benefit consumers?


For a while, it looked like the White Hats and the the Black Hats might settle without a shootout. But now it seems likely that a posse of government lawyers and attorneys general will try to hogtie the Microsoft Gang with the biggest antitrust lawsuit since Teddy Roosevelt went after the Northern Securities railroad tycoons in 1902.

After talks with the Justice Department broke down over the weekend, Microsoft appeared ready to go ahead with plans to release Windows 98 to PC manufacturers today. The latest update of the operating system that runs 80 to 90 percent of the country's desktop computers is scheduled to go on sale to the public June 25. Of course, this could change as the government, abetted by Microsoft's competitors, appears ready to pursue a lawsuit charging that Bill Gates & Co. tried to use its near-monopoly in the operating system market to squash competitors by forcing manufacturers to squeeze them off consumers' computers.

In particular, the government wants Microsoft to abandon plans to make its Internet Explorer Web browser an integral part of the new operating system, thus opening the market for Netscape and other browsers. At the very least, the government wants Netscape bundled with Windows 98, too.

It sounds simple, and it's easy to make a case for Bill Gates as the reincarnation of Jesse James and John D. Rockefeller. But if you look a little deeper, Bill Gates hardly fits the classic definition of a robber baron. And it's not at all clear that whatever comes out of this legal morass will be better for ordinary computer users.

The old robber barons bought up or drove the competition out of business so they could deliver whatever products they wanted to helpless consumers at outrageous prices.

But Gates runs a company that wants to give something away - a Web browser, and a good Web browser at that. Microsoft's main competition in this market, Netscape, also gives away a Web browser - it's a good one, too. And despite a furious assault by Microsoft - including all kinds of allegedly anti-competitive practices - about 60 percent of the people still choose to use Netscape's free Web browser over Microsoft's free Web


Now I'm no legal scholar - if I were, I'd probably understand how I've been victimized. But as a dumb old computer user, it's hard to figure out how anything the government and Microsoft agree to could improve this situation. Would both companies wind up charging me for their Web browsers? That sure would make me feel a lot better.

What makes this even more confusing is Microsoft's argument that in Windows 98, the Web browser is an integral part of the operating system. The government says it shouldn't be. It says the Web browser should be a stand-alone product that has to live or die in competition with other companies' Web browsers.

Microsoft has long made its intentions clear in this regard. In fact, if you've installed Internet Explorer 4.0 - the latest "standalone" version of the Microsoft's Web browser for Windows 95 - you've already had the operation. IE4 makes some very definite changes in the way Windows works. You'll find out just how many changes it makes if you try to uninstall the program - which can be a real nightmare.

If you want it to, Windows 95 with IE4 will treat the folders on your disk drives as if they were Web pages - and files on the Web as if they were sitting on your hard disk. In Microsoft's grand view, there shouldn't be any difference, and the company built this technology into Windows 98 from the outset.

So, if you're the jury, how do you deal with this? An easy way would be to "bury" the existing browser code in Windows 98 and make users "install" it, just as if they were installing someone else's Web browser. You could also keep Microsoft from forcing computer makers to accept deals prohibiting them from bundling anyone else's Web browser with their PCs.

It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Microsoft had a version of Windows 98 ready to go with exactly these features. Bill Gates may be arrogant, but he isn't stupid.

Netscape and other competitors might argue that this isn't enough, that Windows 98 should be stripped of all its browser code. After all, why would any computer maker include (and possibly pay for) another browser if its customers could install Internet Explorer just by clicking on an icon?

But there's a catch here, too. If the core of the browser code is part of Windows 98, virtually any talented programmer can write a Web browser. In fact, there's a little Norwegian company called Opera Software (www.operasoftware.com) that already does this. Opera markets an excellent Web browser that fits on a single floppy disk. Its secret? Intelligent use of features that are already built into Windows 95.

Keeping the underlying browser technology in Windows 98 would open up competition to lots of small companies like Opera. Leaving it out would give Netscape an advantage over everybody except Microsoft.

Now consider how you would enforce a "no browser" version of Windows 98. Would a judge have to pore over every line of Microsoft's source code to make sure it was browser free? How many judges are expert programmers in "C++" or assembly language?

And what about the logical extension of the government's position? In addition to giving away its Web browser, Microsoft throws in a word processor (WordPad), a communications program (HyperTerminal) and a Solitaire game with every copy of Windows. Oh, and don't forget the little calculator, and the little on-screen gadget that plays sound files, and the painting program. None of these has anything more to do with the core functions of an operating system than a Web browser does. Should Microsoft have to toss those out, too?

(Actually, there are a couple of million bosses who would be delighted if Solitaire disappeared, but that's a different story).

In short, would every proposed improvement in the operating system that Microsoft makes be subject to a lawsuit to make sure that it doesn't hurt somebody, somewhere?

I don't know the answer to all these questions. But it doesn't sound like a good way to run an industry.

! Pub date: 5/18/98

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