Microsoft lives to see another day. I’m of two minds on the Microsoft breakup. As a good little Republican, I believe in free enterprise and history demonstrates again and again that the best way to kill something is to regulate it. Government is reasonably good at protecting us from thugs, when it wants to be, and it’s best at protecting us from thugs when it’s not meddling in things it’s not good at doing.
However, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Microsoft is a thug.
Microsoft rightfully recognized OS/2 as a threat to its empire and wanted to get it gone, quickly, before the public realized that Windows 3.1 was just a pile of unstable crap not worthy of being called beta software and started buying something that didn’t crash three times a day. Knowing that IBM is a big, slow company whose various divisions usually don’t even realize they’re part of the same behemoth, Microsoft attacked. As Windows 95’s release date grew nearer, Microsoft knew IBM’s PC division would want to sell Windows 95 pre-installed on their PCs, since no company wanted the distinction of being the only company that couldn’t sell you a Windows 95 PC. Microsoft told IBM that if they wanted to bundle Win95 with their PCs and continue to sell OS/2, well, then, they could just go buy their Windows 95 licences at retail.
Finally, IBM negotiated a compromise. They got their Win95 licenses, but at the price of not being able to market their vastly superior alternative anymore.
Microsoft saw a little company called Netscape as a threat, because its cofounder, a young, hotheaded programmer fresh out of college by the name of Marc Andreesen, publicly stated his ambitions to make his Web browser more important than the operating system it ran on. That’s a lofty goal. Strong talk. But what 23-year-old college graduate doesn’t walk across the stage thinking he or she can conquer the world? Bill Gates wouldn’t understand that feeling, seeing as he never managed to get a degree, but anyone else with the self-discipline to play the game for four years does. And when you’re Marc Andreesen, who managed to write both popular Web browsers, one of them while you’re still in college, you have more than a feeling you can change the world. You already know it. You have evidence! So of course you talk big.
Andreesen paid a tall price for thinking big and talking big. Microsoft went to NCSA and licensed the other Web browser Andreesen wrote, slapped its logo on it, and called it Internet Explorer. Initially they sold it as part of the Plus pack, but since Netscape was a far better browser, Microsoft wisely decided to compete on price. They improved it and started giving it away. Back when the Japanese started selling minivans at below cost, it was called dumping. But laws that apply to everything else don’t apply to computer software, because lawmakers and judges are morons who have no understanding of technology, and Gates, being the son of a lawyer, knew it. So Microsoft got away with it. Netscape, unable to compete, died a very slow, painful death.
But consumers are so much better off now, aren’t they? Rather than pay for a Web browser that sometimes crashes (or, as usually was the case, getting it for free when they sign up with an ISP who bought a bunch of Netscape licenses in bulk), they get a browser/operating system combo that crashes a lot and often takes the whole system down with it.
Now, somehow, a tiny company in Seattle that specializes in streaming audio is a threat to Microsoft’s OS monopoly. I guess when people are listening to underground radio stations using a piece of software that doesn’t display Microsoft’s Windows logo, they’re not thinking wonderful and lovely thoughts about Microsoft and therefore they’re a threat. So Microsoft makes streaming audio part of the OS and foists it on people, even if they don’t have a sound card. Listening to MP3s is an essential, inseperable function of the operating system, after all.
Now, RealAudio makes my life pure hell sometimes and I’d love to see the company roll over and die. But just because they had a good idea and a poor implementation and ambition to grow doesn’t give Microsoft the right to kill them just because they have a product the marketplace likes and some day might use that revenue to become bigger competition than they are now. The logical conclusion of that logic is for Microsoft to send out hit men to take out any programmer who dares work for somebody other than Microsoft or a company like Symantec or Adobe that Microsoft can wrap around its little finger.
And yes, Justice Penfield Jackson is a moron with a big mouth. He was understandably livid at Microsoft for its courtroom antics and doublespeak. However, rather than opening his mouth, ordering their breakup, then opening his mouth some more, he should have just held them in contempt of court. They fabricated evidence when they shot the video that attempted to prove that Edward Felten’s program didn’t work. Jackson caught them. The solution isn’t to extract revenge by opening your mouth outside the courtroom. That’s just stooping to Microsoft’s level. Holding them in contempt and saying why would have been more than enough.
But it’s increasingly looking like none of this matters, for once. Microsoft’s back to its old tricks, bundling more and more stuff that people may or may not want into their operating system, and now they’re doing more than just bullying their competitors. They’re bullying their customers as well. Not many companies will appreciate Microsoft forcing them to spend thousands of dollars to prove they’ve never ever installed a copy of Windows twice. The companies that are guilty, of course, have no leg to stand on. But a lot of companies end up paying for Windows twice. A copy of Windows comes with every PC they buy, but as part of a volume agreement with Microsoft, they end up buying, for whatever reason, an additional copy of Windows for every PC on their network. But now that Microsoft is flailing around for revenue, you’re guilty until proven innocent. If you own one PC and Microsoft knows about it, then it’s entirely possible you own two PCs and you loaded your copy of Windows on it too.
Some of the audited companies are understandably upset and suddenly looking for alternatives, where they were formerly in Microsoft’s camp 100%.
And, of course, Microsoft’s attempts to force people into upgrading, even when Windows 95 and Office 95 are perfectly suited to many tasks, will alienate some. Microsoft’s oft-misunderstood .Net initiative has infuriated people that I never expected to leave the Microsoft camp. Some buy right into it, but some always do. Meanwhile, Linux and its associated software marches on, getting better every day. Ironically, a similar tactic that Microsoft used to murder Netscape in cold blood–giving the software away for free–now threatens the cash cow of NT/2000 server. Servers are enormously profitable–you just take your desktop OS, call it a server, charge five times as much for it, and then charge a few bucks per seat for the privelige of connecting to it. The real cost of a Windows NT/2000 server usually runs five figures. And most companies have several servers. Linux, meanwhile, is low-cost (free if you want), more stable, and more versatile.
Since Microsoft’s current business model requires not just profits, but sustained exponential growth, Linux’s attacks on the server front may allow justice to finally be administered, no matter how incompetent the U.S. Government’s Keystone Kops turn out to be.
One can only hope.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.