The Microsoft antitrust saga stretches onward, and in our latest thrilling installment, the attorneys general from the states rejecting the settlement proposed by the Department of Justice and Microsoft are demanding that Microsoft produce a modular version of Windows—free of applications deemed (by whom Im not sure) as extraneous to the operation of the OS.
The idea is that a stripped-down version of Windows would work to counteract Microsofts software bundling practices. You know those pesky bundling practices—the ones without which wed now be conducting all of our computing across the Netscape Navigator “platform.”
Ive always felt that the governments antitrust actions against Microsoft have placed way too much emphasis on bundling and integration. First off, no self-respecting OS would step out the door without a Web browser. The sort of computing we do today cannot be divorced from the Web. In fact, I wish Microsoft would toss a decent FTP client in with Windows as well.
Second, I like integration. The thing I like best about KDE is the extent to which Konqueror, its browser/file manager/viewer application, is integrated into the desktop environment. Desktop computer users—even those of us who enjoy tweaking around with our systems—appreciate a degree of out-of-the-box elegance, for which integration is just the ticket.
However, what bothers me most about the preoccupation with unfair bundling and integration is that it steals attention away from what I view as Microsofts much more diabolical efforts.
Take Be Inc., which blazed new trails (some of which have yet gone unfollowed) with an excellent and innovative OS. But now, having sold off all of its technology to Palm, Be exists as a mere husk of a company. In an antitrust suit (the full story is at www.beincorporated.com/msft_complaint.pdf) that Be recently filed against Microsoft, the company alleges that Microsoft kept BeOS from being preloaded on OEM systems—even in dual-boot configurations—by threatening to revoke Windows license discounts.
As I mentioned above, computer users are drawn to a smooth out-of-the-box experience. For a desktop OS, this means shipping inside the box, preloaded on the machines that consumers take home with them.
People dont buy OSes, they buy computers. Be got killed, in large part, because it couldnt secure a foothold on OEM machines.
When Palm was starting out, it was able to introduce a new OS into a field with no established competitors chiefly because its new OS arrived in users hands preinstalled on desirable hardware.
Much of the commentary surrounding bundling and integration remedies seems to presuppose a future in which some more open version of Windows will enable all companies to play on a level field.
Does Microsoft hold unfair advantages over other software companies that develop applications for Windows? It certainly does—and although the proposed settlement includes measures intended to preserve a share of openness in Windows APIs, there are too many loopholes that will ensure Microsofts unfair advantages remain, as long as Windows retains its immense market share advantage among desktop OSes.
The vision of a better tomorrow through marginally more open Windows APIs and strict new bundling restrictions is over-optimistic almost to the point of disingenuousness. It seems to me that if openness and a level playing field are what were actually after, the only sure path lies in open-source OSes, such as Linux.
The GNOME and KDE desktop environments have been progressing rapidly toward desktop-friendliness parity with Windows and Macintosh. The biggest stumbling block for desktop Linux moving forward is the same one that did BeOS in.
Where Windows finds its way into ones home preloaded and ready to roll on a piece of hardware, virtually every new Linux installation involves casting aside an OEM-tested and installed copy of Windows that is working and has already been paid for. Linux users embark on a potentially complicated setup routine (for many, any setup routine at all is too complicated), the successful result of which is a copy of Linux that does more or less what Windows had done. Under those circumstances, why should anyone bother?
However, if an eventual settlement between Microsoft and the government can keep our favorite unrepentant monopolist from meddling in the OS choices of its OEMs, Id expect that the license savings that a Dell or a Gateway could pass along to its customers would get the ball rolling nicely.
After all, to the extent that Microsoft continues to stunt competition among alternative Windows-based software products, the party that stands to lose the most over time is Microsoft. For example, scan the Web sometime for Linux-based vs. Windows-based MP3 creation and management tools. Even though Microsofts grip on the desktop computing market is unquestionably tight, some of the most exciting and useful new applications out there either do not support Windows, or do so as an afterthought.
Its silly to expect Microsoft to embrace openness with anything approaching alacrity, and we cant pin our hopes for an open, level playing field on a closed platform. Let Microsoft market the Windows it wants to. The government should focus instead on making sure Microsoft doesnt prevent OEMs from offering their customers platform choice.
Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.