Some time after the first of the year, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson will announce the verdict in the Microsoft antitrust case, and if his thinking is anything like mine, he'll find that the schmucks from Redmond are guilty only of being, well, schmucks.

The notion that Microsoft enjoys a monopoly in operating systems is ludicrous, and becoming more so. How difficult is it, really, to find a computer that doesn't run Windows or even MS-DOS? Just because you can't walk into your nearest Sam's Club and buy a Linux box or an iMac doesn't mean that these machines don't exist. And if you're buying a Web server, Microsoft doesn't even hold first place, let alone a position of utter dominance.

As for the question of pushing Netscape off the desktop, anyone who ever actually installed Netscape knows about making it the default browser, mainly because Netscape made a point of mentioning it in a dialog box during the installation. The government's position seems to be that consumers are too dumb to read dialog boxes (or, for that matter, to shop for operating systems). While this may be true in far too many instances, consumer stupidity is usually covered by the FDA or the FTC, not the DOJ. It's no trick to make Netscape Navigator/Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer coexist peacefully; all it takes is an understanding of the rudiments of how Windows works. You say you don't know how Windows works? What the bloody hell are you doing with a Windows computer, then? This isn't rocket science; this is routine help-file stuff. Get a nine-year-old kid to help you.

Of course, none of this matters to some people; for them, Microsoft is the Evil Empire, and the Department of Justice must become their Jedi Knights. Exactly what the solution is, they can't say for sure. The original DOJ complaint sought to force Microsoft to market Windows and Internet Explorer as separate products, a notion killed off by the U.S. Court of Appeals early on, and to demand revision of Microsoft's contracts with ISPs that tied them to a specific browser. This latter process was already underway, and further accelerated once users figured out that using Windows' Dial-Up Networking icon instead of the ISP's icon, they could load any Net client they wanted with no complaints from the ISP or from Windows. The contracts, therefore, were essentially meaningless, and it's no wonder they all disappeared.

So how would a victorious Justice Department punish Microsoft? By doing unto them what was done unto AT&T in 1983? Apart from a substantial decrease in some long-distance rates and a substantial increase in consumer confusion, the creation of the Baby Bells didn't accomplish a great deal for Joe and Susan Sixpack, unless one or both of them happen to work in Mergers and Acquisitions. And how would they split up Microsoft anyway? Spinning off Internet Explorer and Office into separate companies? Forcing the sale of NT? And how would any of these divestitures address the original problem? The Microsoft-bashers offer little beyond platitudes.

Then again, even if Microsoft comes out the winner, the company has already made a substantial effort to secure the rights to the title of Sore Loser; the Washington Post reported this week that Microsoft lobbyists have approached Congress and asked them to trim the Justice Department's antitrust budget. A preemptive strike, or merely a spate of childish spite? This suggests to me that the fictional character most resembling Bill Gates isn't Darth Vader after all; it's Scrooge McDuck.

The Vent

16 October 1999

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 Copyright © 1999 by Charles G. Hill