Were looking back this week at 20 years of Microsoft Windows, and along that timeline theres much to admire. Id fall short of my duty to eWEEK readers, though, if I didnt make it clear that you didnt get all that you had coming to you.
PC users have demonstrably been robbed, not to mince words, of almost 10 years worth of the innovation in the end-user experience that many PC ecosystem players would have been striving to deliver if Microsoft hadnt told them not to bother—or else.
We need not praise the dubious origins and unimpressive results of the Microsoft antitrust litigation of 1998 through 2004, but theres one passage of the Findings of Fact in that case that deserves to be remembered.
That document offers hard data, provided by Hewlett-Packard, measuring the consequences to both users and vendors of monopoly power in the PC marketplace.
It really began in the spring of 1996, when Microsoft started dictating the precise startup behavior and desktop appearance of Windows.
The Findings of Fact enumerates five constraints that Microsoft imposed on PC vendors. The most important was that “Microsoft prohibited OEMs from installing programs, including alternatives to the Windows desktop user interface, which would launch automatically upon completion of the initial Windows boot sequence.”
HP, which had built its own visual shell for Windows, objected.
“Emblematic of the reaction among large OEMs,” the record continues, “was a letter that the manager of research and development at Hewlett-Packard sent to Microsoft in March 1997. He wrote: Microsofts mandated removal of all OEM boot-sequence and auto-start programs for OEM licensed systems has resulted in significant and costly problems. … [O]ur system return rate has increased from the lowest of any OEM (even lower than Apple) to a level comparable to the other Microsoft OEM PC vendors.”
Thats about the biggest and most costly experiment thats ever been conducted, I suspect, in the transformation of a marketplace from innovative differentiation to enforced commoditization.
Windows could have been the foundation of an industry-standard marketplace in which applications written for any Windows-capable machine would have run without modification on all such machines, but PC builders could still have competed on their ability to devise the most approachable and productive environment in which to access those applications and orchestrate ones work.
Those hardware makers, many with decades of experience in creating end-user integration environments, were prevented from doing that. The court found that “the OEMs obeyed the restrictions because they perceived no alternative to licensing Windows for pre-installation on their PCs.”
That kowtowing by PC makers to the market power of Windows was the moment when the PC industry shut itself into a beige box of Wintel homogeneity. As Jim Rapozas column in this issue points out (Page 54), not much has happened since.
Think about what we might have seen in the past nine years. We might have seen user interfaces based on personal timelines; we might have had on-screen desktops that automatically associated files with one another based on content or on e-mail traffic analysis suggesting project or team relationships.
These ideas have been explored by various research groups, but the view of computing that most users would see has been imposed by just one company.
Were there benefits to users from the ability to sit down at any Windows machine and see a familiar environment? Yes, that seems inarguable, but a certain degree of turbulence and discomfort is part of any journey worth the effort of making at all. Weve invested effort in the past to make useful transitions. We shouldnt be afraid to do so again—and we should always have the chance.
Peter Coffee can be reached at [email protected]