As I sit at my computer, circumspect about U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's findings of fact against Microsoft, I notice two books in my library that are appropriately stacked at opposite ends of the shelf, and ponder the irony of both books.
"Gates: How Microsoft's mogul reinvented an industry--and made himself the richest man in America", by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews (1973) tells the story of an unlikely teenage computer geek with behavior problems rising to be the richest man in the world. It's an upbeat story of the American dream and capitalism at its finest and a great historical source that chronicles the evolution of the personal computer industry.
In this book, Gates is portrayed as a savvy young genius with technical know-how who achieves unparalleled success oftentimes through smoke and mirrors marketing tactics and just plain luck. The stories of his rise to power are often funny and incredulous. The now-famous operating system, for example, was never the first priority for the early Microsoft group and in fact was an after-thought they scrambled to acquire in the eleventh hour, in order to meet a deadline for the first IBM PC.
After Gary Kildall chose not to license the CP/M operating system to Microsoft (big mistake), Gates bought a CP/M clone called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) from Seattle Computer for the grand total of $75,000. The rest is history for the young, aggressive company with only two rules: no time clocks and no dress code.
A much darker side of Bill Gates is presented in "The Microsoft File" (1998), by Wendy Goldman Rohm. She paints an ugly side to Bill Gates and the plundering marketing practices of Microsoft, hell-bent on destroying any competition that threatened the dominance and control of Microsoft. It's much easier to read than Judge Jackson's 207-page decision and contains much of the damning evidence against Microsoft.
Somewhere in between those two books, Gates & Co. got panicky, greedy and finally predatory. The only early bet that Microsoft missed was the Internet. It wasn't given serious consideration until companies like Netscape were making headlines with consumers and Wall Street alike. Microsoft was late jumping on the Internet bandwagon and when they finally came aboard, they realized a serious threat loomed on the horizon.
Gates now correctly envisioned a personal computer that could run on Internet technology, without an operating system, thereby endangering his empire. He wasn't content with the legal monopoly he'd already commanded with Windows and was determined to protect his system software dominance by taking control of the Internet as well. It was at this point that Microsoft crossed the line and abused their monopoly.
You can see it all in your System Properties window where IE (Internet Explorer) and release number are listed as system software. Internet Explorer is clearly not system software that is integral to controlling your hardware and programs, but application software, a browser like Netscape that allows you to navigate the Internet. Apparently Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed.
While Silicon Valley and the Justice Dept. pass around high-fives, it's the consumer who'll ultimately wander around dazed and confused wondering which operating system works with what modem or printer if Microsoft is forced to open its operating system source code. Eventually, there will be more choices and innovation, but for the immediate future, at least, it will be confounding at best for those who have enjoyed a standardized platform.
It's a shame, because Microsoft has excellent products that can stand on their own merits without stooping to such low business practices that only display a lack of character and integrity. Competition is and always will be good for the marketplace.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.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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