CeePrompt! Computer Connection 

Originally published Monday, June 1, 1998 

Microsoft's hard sell 
crosses fairness line

While you may be weary of the Microsoft vs. Justice Department news, I'd be remiss if I didn't respond to the many inquiries I've received over the past two weeks, seeking a simplified explanation of the conflict as well as my humble opinion.

 It's been heralded as the biggest anti-trust suit in history, which pits the dominant software giant Microsoft against the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

In the present case, the Justice Department and 20 state attorneys general are seeking a preliminary injunction to force Microsoft to separate its Internet Explorer browser from Windows 98. There are other issues, but this is the critical sticking point. The multiple actions have been consolidated into one case that will be heard in federal court Sept. 8.

The government has been keeping close tabs on Microsoft since 1990 when it suspected possible collusion between Microsoft and IBM. Since that time there has been continual posturing, threats and investigations, but nothing of the magnitude that MS now faces and, I believe, with good cause.

I do think that Microsoft is finally treading the line that separates true capitalism from fascism.

As a staunch Microsoft supporter, I can hardly believe that I speak these words, but the future of a strong, creative software industry demands that MS not be allowed to strong-arm equipment manufacturers and consumers into accepting unwanted products and desktop configurations as part of the necessary operating system.

Let's review Computers 101: Software is a set of instructions that tells the computer what to do and is categorized as either system or application software. Application software are programs designed to carry out a specific task at the user's request whereas system software is the program that interfaces between all hardware, the user and all application software.

Microsoft gained its dominance in the PC market by first cornering the market on the system software MS-DOS, then Windows 3.X and now Windows 95/98. You must have an operating system to run your PC and today, Microsoft controls 90 percent of the world's personal computers using the Windows operating system.

Enjoying their control of the system software market, Microsoft has branched into application software development with great success as well.

Products such as Word, Excel and Access are the preferred applications among most business users.

Little by little, however, Microsoft has started bundling its own applications with the operating system, first with "applets" like Write, Paint and Terminal and then more boldly with the likes of the Microsoft Network. Now Microsoft is flagrantly forcing its browser software, Microsoft Explorer, onto the desktops of Windows 98 and won't allow any alteration or customization by equipment manufacturers in keeping with their licensing agreements.

At the very least this is a clear attempt to gain market share over Netscape and some believe this is part of a Microsoft long-term strategy to control the Internet as well. In theory, he who controls the window to the Internet can control the Internet as well. That the web browser may eventually replace the operating system altogether in the future further justifies Microsoft's rigid stance and sense of urgency.

Regardless of the grand scheme, Microsoft's application software products must stand-alone and not be leveraged with its operating system software.

Microsoft Word outpaced industry workhorse WordPerfect on its own merits as did Excel over Lotus 1-2-3. Let Explorer go head-to-head with Netscape on an even playing field and allow the market place to choose the victor.

Not only does bundling application and operating system software create an unfair business advantage, it also creates a huge, bloated operating system.

I'd much rather see Microsoft focus its efforts on developing a well-tuned OS instead of trying to deliver the all-in-one operating system to the exclusion of third-party developers.

In a curious turn of events last week, Microsoft granted Gateway computers permission to promote their proprietary Internet access from the desktop and then allow consumers to choose between Netscape and Explorer as their browser software. Interestingly, these were two of the issues that MS refused to negotiate just the week before with the Justice Department. A gesture of good faith perhaps or a strategic move?

I'm certainly not suggesting that Microsoft be broken up into smaller companies, as some radical thinkers have proposed. Microsoft wants the "freedom to design products with innovative new features, functions and improvements." No problem. Just give consumers the same freedom to choose their own application software.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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