december 01, 1999
Selected Past Articles:
Judge Thomas Jackson decided that Microsoft is in fact a monopoly. I think I speak for every geek in the world when I say, "DUH!" It's not as if the outcome was determined from the start. But it's always refreshing when a US judge manages to bring a correct decision on technology issues. Not to be too hard on the US judiciary, it is worthwhile to note that when your area of specialization is law, it can be more than a little difficult to figure out all these tech-related issues.
The really interesting part of this whole situation, I think, is the course Judge Jackson took after bringing down the monopoly decision. I still cannot get over how clever it was to appoint a mediator, particularly Judge Richard Posner, a man who is well known for being a major free-market proponent (and thus not likely to be accused of pro-government bias). The problem with an anti-trust decision is that it's virtually impossible to write in a such a way so as to deter appeals. And there were so many judgement call areas in this case - all the internal Microsoft details that came to light (and how they were used), the testimony of witnesses from other companies who were obviously not going to be inclined to try to help Microsoft out, Gates' own testimony and the way it was read and interpreted - that an appeal would be virtually guaranteed. And there's more than a decent chance Microsoft could have gotten the whole thing overturned.
So Jackson managed to cover his...mmmm...bases in two ways by appointing Posner. In the meantime, of course, both Microsoft and DOJ must realize that it's in their best interests to settle. If the government doesn't settle, they could easily lose this thing on appeal. If Microsoft appeals, there's no guarantee the appeals judge won't make the penalty more severe. On the other hand, there have been three previous attempts to reach a settlement, all of which have been unsuccessful. But prior to Jackson's decision, neither Microsoft nor DOJ had any particular incentive to work this out as, according to all reports, both were feeling very confident of their cases. Now, DOJ has something to lose, and Microsoft has already lost once. Monty, let's make a deal.
The real question, though, is what will the settlement be? If Microsoft gets broken up, it will make Bill Gates an even richer man (which ought to stifle all those people who see this as some sort of personal vendetta Janet Reno holds for Gates because he's wealthy). I don't know how much that would do for operating system competition, but I think it would certainly help in the applications competition arena, since there are already viable alternatives which, without the added weight of the operating system, might be able to gain significant market share. But I just can't see how this would produce meaningful operating system competition. I love Linux as much as the next geek, but Joe and Josephine Home User are probably never going to jump on that bandwagon: the learning curve is too steep, and the support is too uneven and uncertain. Microsoft might just get a whopping big fine, which would be temporarily painful and would slow down their acquisition of other people's ideas, but over the long term that wouldn't have much in the way of lasting effect, since it's difficult to imagine that the fine would be sufficient to shut them down long enough for everyone else to catch up.
I think the most interesting proposal is the sale of the code. I have visions of somebody big (Sun?) buying the code to Windows 2000 and deciding to publish it. Voila: overnight Microsoft operating systems become open source. The tech world would be rather chaotic for a while as the various flavors of Windows that would develop went through a winnowing process, but in the end, we'd have a more secure, more efficient, more powerful GUI operating system product at a much lower cost. In other words, Windows as Unix. Can I get an amen?
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