The monopoly monster

Sun 21 November 1999

So Microsoft is a monopolistic monster. What are you going to do, gather the whole village to assault the castle with hoes and pitchforks? Burn it down with torches? Get real.

James Whales’ 1931 movie of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has become an icon of horror cinematography. Fulfilling his personal vision, Dr. Frankenstein creates a living man (or almost a man). Infusing life into the inanimate, the doctor feels a God-like power. “It’s alive! Aliiive!” he screams, overwhelmed by the ecstasy that accompanies creation. But Frankenstein’s not-quite-human being is intelligent enough to claim a larger space in the world than its maker imagined. The monster’s power makes everyone uncomfortable — even its creator. Power frightens us because the smallest actions of the powerful can have large consequences, and their mistakes can be devastating. The mistakes of Frankenstein’s creature, though born of childlike naivet√©, quickly become too much to bear. As the film comes to an end, torch-wielding villagers hunt down the monster. The mob sets fire to an old mill where the creature is trapped, and there it presumably dies.

Conflicting viewpoints

frankestein

Frankenstein and his creation come to mind when I contemplate developers’ reactions to Judge Jackson’s findings of fact in the Microsoft-DOJ antitrust case. Having found Microsoft to be a monopoly (a kind of monster), the mob has been quick to loudly indict: Tear it to pieces! Restrain it permanently! Confine it! Destroy it!

Voices of reason have also spoken. In his 11 Nov. Developer News article, correspondent Jeff Russell maintains that the case brought against Microsoft holds little water, and that the allegations brought against the company would have been better dealt with in civil court, if at all. Long-term Byte columnist Jerry Pournelle explains why Microsoft’s success should be credited mostly to its acting smarter and doing things better than its competitors, rather than to excess of power. PC Week columnist Peter Coffee says, “The judge just didn’t get it.”

Judging from the results of polls like the one at vote.com, and from most of the “talkback” messages posted in reply to the past two weeks’ news, it would seem that Microsoft never did anything wrong — or that whatever it did, government intervention isn’t merited.

On the other hand, you might base your opinion on the anti-Microsoft sentiment that has sparked and grown in the past 10 years. How did the company start getting nicknames like “Microslop” and “M$” in developer circles?

So Microsoft is a monster. What does one do with a monster? What is the reasonable response? How should the company itself view its actions? What is the role of the development community? What does the whole issue seem to predict for the future? Obviously, such questions can’t even be considered from the perspective of an angry, frightened mob.

The monster’s blunders

It takes no more than a quick scan of the Web to gather a list of allegations against Microsoft. Consumer advocates Ralph Nader and James Love have compiled a series of documents related to Microsoft’s anticompetitive conduct. The Web also provides many links to the proceedings of trials brought against Microsoft for anticompetitive behavior; those brought by Sun and by Caldera are two. Microsoft is cited in examples of anticompetitive practices in a couple of university courses on ethics and computing. According to these and other articles, documents, Web pages, and online discussions, Microsoft has indulged in such nefarious practices as: hiding and using to its advantage the undocumented, simpler, and more efficient native system API in Windows NT; preannouncing nonexistent products to discourage consumer purchases of rival goods (vaporware); avoiding or sabotaging open and semi-open standards; creating DLL Hell; delivering badly designed software; and much more.

Dr. Frankenstein’s dues

In his article “Making Microsoft safe for capitalism,” journalist James Gleick interviews several industry leaders about their opinions on Microsoft. Among those queried is Mitchell Kapor, who was founder and CEO of Lotus Development Corp., the company that produced the best-selling Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet application. According to the article, Kapor thinks Microsoft has “thin ethics.” Kapor says:

Anything not a direct lie or clearly illegal is OK to do and should be done if it advances Microsoft’s tribal cause. This licenses the worst sorts of manipulations, lies, tortured self-justifications, and so on.

Yet in the same article, Gleick suggests that it is not the company’s practices that have sparked the anti-Microsoft sentiment, but the perpetrator itself:

Microsoft is hardly alone, of course; plenty of its competitors would play as rough, if they only could. Others in the industry suggest that Microsoft’s small-company scrappiness has kept it from facing the issue of corporate ethics. Behavior that people will forgive, or at least understand, in a start-up looks considerably less attractive when David grows into Goliath.

It’s not only what the monster does that incites us; it’s what the monster is. But can we really expect integrity from a monster? Monster authority Joe Sena, Deaditor-In-Grief of Universal’s Online Horror Channel, writes in his June 1998 deaditorial:

Just what kind of vows do [monsters] take, anyway — “Until dissection or torch-wielding mob do we [sic] part”? Or do sequels render such finality moot?

Should monsters be accountable for what monsters do? Sure. But shouldn’t their creators accept part of the blame? “Let’s go after Bill Gates!” Many would rally to the cry. But what about all the managers who’ve said, “You can’t go wrong choosing Microsoft”? Or the programmers who’ve rationalized, “Clients want VB (VC++, MFC, COM), so that’s what I give them”? What about the unimaginative computing companies and their “do-what-Microsoft-does” ways? What about the millions of users protesting, “But my friend can’t read my documents if they’re not from Microsoft Word”? It’s a monster all right, but we have all helped create it.

The face in the mirror

According to the script, this is the point where I declare the verdict. What penalty do I think the court should impose against Microsoft’s recurrent abuses? No penalty. Nothing at all. Leave Microsoft alone. Ignore it. Microsoft succeeded in an industry that has been continuously inventing itself for the past 20 years. It succeeded where better-established companies that had started on a better footing fared worse, or even failed. What good is a computer on every desk if people can’t exchange letters and spreadsheets? In a world begging for data and usability standards, Microsoft provided them: its own. After all, as far as standards are concerned, there can be only one.

For the U.S. government to act against Microsoft in court would be like taking the guillotine to our own creation. It would be too much, too late. The computing world in which Microsoft was nourished (on which it fed?) no longer exists. Along with the ubiquitous and global Internet have come new ways of setting standards. These days, more than market power is needed to influence the Internet’s evolution. The fastest-growing area of computing is that of interconnected, wireless appliances and wearable devices. Microsoft has a long, long way to go before its presence is felt there. Then there’s the open source movement. Microsoft has yet to demonstrate that it can negotiate the rapid transition from software royalties into services. And we’ve yet to see how Microsoft and the users of its products will fare once the new year arrives.

One thing is certain: We shouldn’t be scared of monsters anymore. If you’re still concerned about Microsoft’s power, there are things you can do. For your next project, why not base your choice of development environment on merits, rather than on market share? Why not get hold of a Linux distribution and learn to use it? How about learning to program on it? How about supporting more portable and open programming languages like Python, Perl, and Java? How about choosing something different from Windows to run the gadget you’re giving yourself for Christmas? As we often tell our kids: just ignore the monster, and it will go away.

Originally written for In Publishing LLC
Copyright © 1999 Inprise Corp.