Life, Liberty, and Seamless Internet Access

All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of seamless and transparent Internet support. I'm sure our Founding Fathers would have included these words had they been able to see into the future, and I'm sure they're twisting in their graves as our so-called justice system does its best to disconnect the browser from the Windows OS.

I never thought I'd need to discuss the Microsoft antitrust trial in SQL Server Magazine Update, but I was wrong. I can't think of a more important competitive threat to SQL Server than the potential breakup of Microsoft. This week, I explore the nature of innovation, why OS-integrated browsing and Internet technology is clearly the right (and legal) course of action, and what lack of product innovation in general might mean for SQL Server. Next week, I'll discuss the harm SQL Server customers might suffer if the breakup proceeds and what you can do to influence the court's "remedy."

Now, on to innovation. Is bundling Internet Explorer (IE) with Windows a brilliant innovative move or predatory behavior? The US Appeals Court already determined that Microsoft can innovate and add features to its products. Arguments against Microsoft's business tactics and cost models for distributing IE are moot if "plausible" (the word the appeals court uses) consumer benefits result from innovating, improving, and extending OS technology by including a browser. In other words, bundling IE for free in the OS is legal as long as it results in plausible consumer benefit.

Here's a plausible argument that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, the Attorneys General, and the vast army of Microsoft bashers might want to consider. As a consumer of computing services, I don't want to care about the differences between interacting with Web versus non-Web content. As an end user, I don't want a different viewing and access mechanism to look at content on my local CD-ROM, hard disk, or network, and I definitely don't want a different browsing mechanism to look at Web content. As a developer, I don't want to change the way I develop based on whether I deploy the content and application in a traditional environment or a browser environment. People who think the browser is just another application and shouldn't be part of the OS's core services don't see the big picture. They're bound by a myopic view of the Web that suggests users browse only occasionally to search relatively static content over a slow, nonpersistent dial-up connection. That view might describe the Web of yesterday and, sometimes, today, but it doesn't describe the Web of tomorrow.

Not long ago, I thought the Internet was over-hyped. Today, I see how the Internet—especially with increasing availability of and improvement in broadband network access—truly can change the way we work, play, interact with each other, and simply survive. As the Internet becomes more and more a part of our everyday lives, I can't envision an OS that DOESN'T include transparent and integrated access to the Internet.

What would OSs look like if we didn't integrate new capabilities into core technology services—even at the expense of existing vendors that offer the same services? PCs wouldn't have GUIs. Nor would they have built-in networking, seamless support for printing devices, built-in multimedia support, and a host of other capabilities that we, as OS consumers, take for granted. Remember Windows for Workgroups? Many IT professionals wondered why Microsoft would ever want to integrate networking with Windows. They also questioned whether Microsoft should have the power to trample an entire cottage industry that provided after-market networking stacks. Today, many of those same people run home LANs and would scream "bloody murder" if Windows didn't ship with an integrated IP stack. And those home networks? They'd be beyond the means of non-IT mortals.

What does OS innovation—and restrictions thereon—have to do with databases? Consider what the market would look like if developers weren't constantly enhancing database functionality by integrating capabilities that weren't traditionally part of the core database. The next generation of SQL Server includes advanced support for data mining and data warehousing, sophisticated data-transformation tools, native support for http requests, the ability to serve XML data, support for natural-language querying, and hybrid object relational capabilities provided through OLE DB linked servers. None of these features is a traditional relational database management system (RDBMS) service, but each function clearly helps the database customer. Adding these features to the database system unquestionably hurts some vendors in the market. But bad luck for a particular vendor category is great luck for the consumer when the integrated capability makes life—and IT—easier.

Without a doubt, Microsoft made a serious tactical error when it argued that it was impossible to remove the browser from Windows. Everyone, including Bill Gates, knows that removing the browser is possible. It's also possible to stick a pencil in your eye, but no sane person would ever want to do that. Remember life before remote controls and cable TV, before ATM cards and mobile phones? Those advances pale in comparison with the massive changes the Internet will bring. Thinking that the primary tool for managing the vast communications resource we call the 'Net shouldn't be a seamless component of the tools we use to access it is plain silly. Today, many people question the need for browser integration because they don't understand the profound effect the Internet will have on the way we live—at work and at home. Tomorrow, they'll wonder how they could have been so foolish.

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