Microsoft Remedies, Part 2

I sent off last week's editorial with a sense of dread because I knew that its content would elicit certain responses. I'm not trying to be controversial. I believe what I wrote last week about Microsoft: It's a bullying monopoly that must be prevented from continuing its monopolistic behavior in the future. In this second part of my editorial, I examine some possible solutions to this problem, but first I'll address some of the common themes in the 200+ email responses I received last week.

The responses were split about 60/40, agree and disagree. Many people explained that they would never ordinarily respond to a newsletter but that the subject begged for a response. And it's certainly true that the Microsoft trial is one of the infinitely debatable subjects of our time. The emails of those who agreed with me thanked me for finally stating the obvious while the emails of those who disagreed varied from the unprintable to a measured breakdown of the mistakes I made in my reasoning. And although all criticisms are welcome, I take exception to the handful of unprintable responses: Some were shocking. That comes with the territory, of course, but if you disagreed and were at least logical about it, I appreciate it. Some of my best email correspondence has begun with email complaints. Finally, I've been able to reply to only a small fraction of those who emailed, and I apologize for that. I attempt to respond to all of my emails over time, but in this case, the sheer number of them might preclude that. However, I will read all of them fully.

So, what's to be done with our favorite monopoly? As I noted in a Windows Millenium (Windows Me) Beta 3 review on the SuperSite last week, Microsoft is busy bundling even more products in its next consumer release, including video-editing software and a media player that completely alleviates the need for Winamp, RealPlayer, and other third-party media content delivery systems. It's just such brazen behavior that concerns me most. What other company—found guilty of product tying and illegally maintaining and extending a monopoly—would tie even more products to the very monopoly that got it into trouble in the first place? And Microsoft has demonstrated in the past—as with its 1995 consent decree—that a conduct remedy is likely to be ignored before the ink on the agreement even dries.

My first inclination was toward a breakup of the company into several competing units, each of which could market a version of Windows. However, although breaking up of Microsoft would be a big moral win (not to mention a huge boon for its shareholders), such an action might not make sense due to the wider economic repercussions. As recent stock market losses suggest, we're probably reaching the end of the historic economic expansion that we've enjoyed for the past few years. And with this coincidence of timing, Microsoft might ultimately luck out—because breaking up the company could be the deathblow to an increasingly fragile economy. So, with some reservations and despite the fact that Microsoft's actions and industry power warrant it, I would advise against a breakup.

Let's use other methods to ensure that competition can return to the industry that this single company so thoroughly dominates. First, I recommend that the Win32 and Win64 APIs be submitted as an open standard to a governing body in which Microsoft would play but a part. Anyone who wants to sell compatible versions of Windows as well as those who work with competing OSs—such as Linux and the Mac OS, which would benefit from this compatibility—would have access to the APIs. It's not so much Windows per se that's desirable but the application compatibility: We run Windows because it has the applications we want. If these applications could run unchanged on Linux and the Mac OS, would we still choose Windows? Let's find out.

Next up is Microsoft Office, which enjoys an even greater monopoly than Windows itself. Although Office was not a major topic of discussion during the trial, Microsoft must be prevented from giving its Office team early access to upcoming Windows features and APIs. It's hard to imagine Corel or Lotus being able to compete fairly with Office when they lack the same access to Windows that Office enjoys. And while an obvious solution—making the Office team a separate company—seems logical enough, the economic situation has led me to rule this out. So two possibilities emerge: The Office APIs could be opened up in a manner similar to that outlined for the Win32 and Win64 APIs, or the Office team could be forced to work in a location physically separate from Redmond and treated like any other third-party developer. Or both. Even in the second case, I'd recommend opening the current APIs—if only to let competitors catch up on technology the Office and Windows teams have shared.

Although numerous other tactics could help reintroduce competition to the software industry, together Office and Windows represent more than 90 percent of Microsoft's revenues—so they make an obvious place to start. Is the plan I describe just pie in the sky or does it offer a glimmer of what needs to be done? As always, I'll let you decide. But I can at least tell you this: Next week, I'm going to tackle something a bit less controversial and let the courts work this one out.

TAGS: Windows 8
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