IS MICROSOFT being persecuted unfairly by the U.S. Justice Department?
Many columnists, editorial writers, political cartoonists and members of Congress seem to think so, and public sentiment appears to favor the view that the company should be absolved of any wrongdoing and the suit terminated.
I recently heard a news analyst say, "It is difficult to see how consumers have been hurt in any way by Microsoft." The company's ads imply that if the government is successful in breaking them into separate companies, it will be damaging to "healthy competition, innovation and consumer choice."
Microsoft's runaway success has provided great benefits to its stockholders, its employees, the computer industry and, in some ways, to society as a whole.
However, there have been significant societal costs as well. The company's determination to dominate the Internet and to control the entire software market has damaged some competitors severely and driven some out of business. Microsoft's hardball tactics have all but eliminated consumer choice for many types of software. They also have a large degree of control in hardware; a threat to withdraw access to Windows can force such giant firms as IBM, Intel, or Sun to agree not to install competitive software. Most of Microsoft's extremely high market share in application software is because of the operating system monopoly, not to product excellence.
Ten years ago, personal computer magazines published frequent articles comparing competitive offerings of word processors, spreadsheets or graphics presentation packages.
WordPerfect was the leading word processor at that time, and Lotus was the market leader in spreadsheets, but competition was healthy with several prominent contenders in every category. The ratings fluctuated frequently. In spreadsheets, for example, sometimes Lotus 1-2-3 was rated tops in quality, at other times Excel or Borland's Quattro Pro might get that rating.
Close competition promoted rapid improvements in all of the products and real innovation. Today, there is virtually no competition in any of these categories. Microsoft has more than a 90 percent share in most of them. There is little incentive for innovation. They can turn out frequent new versions with minimal change.
Learning to use a particular type of software requires an investment of time, and proficiency increases with experience. The most frequently used commands become almost automatic, and many users are resistant to switching to another product if there are significant differences in the way the product works.
I have used WordPerfect for 12 years, and Lotus 1-2-3 since it was first introduced in 1983. Word and Excel are fine products. I have used both of them and they are not difficult for me, but I prefer to use the ones with which I have the most familiarity.
Loyal users want to have choices, but alternatives are rapidly disappearing. My students at the University of Baltimore are very familiar with the Microsoft products, but most have never heard of Lotus 1-2-3, Lotus FreeLance, WordPerfect, Quattro Pro or Harvard Graphics.
I recently visited a large bookstore and found more than 100 books on Microsoft Office products (Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint), and not a single one for any of the Corel Suite or Lotus Suite products.
On the Amazon.com Web site, a search for Microsoft Office got 671 hits. There were only 13 for Corel Office and eight for Lotus, most of which were published several years ago.
You can buy a new computer at a computer store or on the Web with Windows 2000 and the Microsoft Suite already installed, but when I called Dell to ask if I could buy a computer with any software other than Microsoft's preinstalled, the answer was an incredulous "no!"
I was startled to find that IBM, the owner of Lotus, does not sell the Lotus Suite on its own Web site; it features Microsoft products there. Even if new users want to use an alternative product, they have to make an extra effort to obtain the software, and it would be difficult to learn how to use it since no books are available.
Microsoft doesn't have just one monopoly, it has two -- in operating systems and in application software.
In trying to protect both, it can make decisions that are harmful to competition and to innovation. To remain healthy, a business needs strong competitors. For example, General Motors' cars are much improved today thanks to Toyota and Honda.
In the long run, it might be more beneficial even for Microsoft and its stockholders to accept the Justice Department's breakup proposal. I feel sure it would be beneficial to consumers, even those millions who do not realize how much their freedom of choice has been restricted.
Bruce W. Rollier is associate professor of information systems at the University of Baltimore.