How Will the Microsoft Split Affect Windows Users?

The Microsoft antitrust trial took an interesting turn when the US government announced its proposal to break the company into two separate entities—one to sell Windows OSs and another to control everything else. Although Microsoft's guilt is infinitely debatable, the time has come to consider a future in which Microsoft in its current form no longer exists. In the short term, Windows users will feel negligible effects. But let's assume the Supreme Court upholds the government's proposal and look at how the Microsoft split will affect the hundreds of millions of Windows users worldwide.

Simply splitting Windows from Microsoft Office and the company's other applications probably won't dramatically change the way that customers buy and use PCs. Windows will retain a vast monopoly in desktop sales and a respectable server market share with Windows 2000 and Windows NT. Windows will continue to derive the bulk of its sales from machine bundles in which the end user licenses the OS when purchasing a new computer. But the government's plan will change the way Microsoft sells and markets Windows to PC manufacturers and consumers.

To understand the change, let's look at the way Microsoft currently sells Windows. OEMs, such as PC manufacturers, can sell Microsoft's most recent consumer product, Windows Millennium Edition (Windows ME), but Microsoft determines what makes up the OS. Therefore, Microsoft determines the OS's startup sequence, desktop icons, and general look and feel. Microsoft also decides which add-on programs, such as Windows Movie Maker, Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5, and Windows Media Player 7, are in the box. You can argue that such products are free because Microsoft includes them in the price of Windows. However, the inclusion of these products excludes third-party developers who make money from products that compete in an otherwise open market. Therefore, you can argue that Microsoft's practice of tying applications to Windows harms competitors.

To address this problem, the government's plan requires Microsoft to sell a Windows version that doesn't include middleware applications (i.e., applications that don't perform a key system function). Web browsers and media players aren't middleware applications, but memory management is. Therefore, customers who want a Windows version that includes Movie Maker, IE, or Windows Media Player will purchase the bundled Windows product, which would be essentially identical to what Microsoft currently offers. But users who don't want middleware applications can purchase a cheaper basic Windows version. The creation of two products moves the choice from Microsoft to the consumer.

For PC manufacturers, the choices are also exciting. OEMs can break Windows into its components and provide users with custom installations. And an OEM will pay Microsoft only for the components the OEM sells. PC manufacturers will have the freedom to change aspects of Windows, such as the startup sequence, desktop icons, and the user interface (UI), as long as the manufacturer offers an easy way for users to reset the Microsoft defaults. Computer manufacturers can also make system components and bundled applications accessible through the Control Panel Add/Remove Programs applet so that users can further customize the Windows installation to meet their needs.

The plan to split Microsoft isn't perfect, of course, and whether the government will have the opportunity to implement it remains to be seen. A lengthy court battle will ensue and some time will pass before Windows users learn the final outcome. However, users can hope for future versions of Windows that offer more choice, which is a welcome outcome regardless of your take on the Microsoft trial.

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