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Tech Industry

Make Microsoft suffer

The federales should throw the book at Microsoft for a terrible Web page color scheme and for letting Brad Chase appear at press conferences wearing a Nehru shirt (among other violations of the interstate dress code). Cite the company for hiring too many executives whose only skill in life is being able to use "leverage," "paradigm," and "proactive" all in the same sentence.

The Justice Department shouldn't stop at the browser.

The federales should throw the book at Microsoft for a terrible Web page color scheme and for letting Brad Chase appear at press conferences wearing a Nehru shirt (among other violations of the interstate dress code). Cite the company for hiring too many executives whose only skill in life is being able to use "leverage," "paradigm," and "proactive" all in the same sentence.

A year from now, if the DOJ does its job, we will see Paul Maritz running the cigarette trade out of the prison laundry and Nathan Myhrvold wielding Microsoft should suffer for its self-righteous rails against
inept democracy. a sharpened spoon against the Spanish Lords in the H block rec yard.

Go ahead, Madam Attorney General, indict Microsoft for push channels, for Sidewalk, for Bob, for popularizing the 14-hour work day, and for not changing its trade show booth for more than two years, while you're at it.

Most of all, the software giant should be made to suffer in the judicial ringer because for years it has self-righteously railed against the inept and arbitrary nature of democratic powers. Now, I figure, it should meet government face to face.

The high-tech industry's haughty attitude toward the public sector has always mystified me, especially since high technology has historically depended upon the support and largesse of government. The Internet, after all, evolved from a communications system funded for over 20 years by the Defense Department that was essentially handed over gratis to private enterprise a few years ago.

Stock options? Same thing. The right to start a publicly traded corporation with a distinct legal standing from its investors is nowhere in the Constitution. The public company as we know it today only really got its start toward the end of the last century as a way to accommodate growing business interests. Then, in this century, the government set up the Securities and Exchange Commission to eliminate fraud, a step which secured the stock market.

Then there are all those juicy Defense contracts that have spawned all sorts of public domain technology while padding the wallets of high-tech moguls. Without government assistance, the whole basis of high-tech wealth would crumble.

Yet rarely do you meet a high-tech executive who even hints at expressing thanks to the average taxpayer for putting up with these schemes. Instead, mention the government and some act as if someone shoved a copy of the The Fountainhead down their pants. They immediately start ranting and raving against bureaucratic waste, capital gains taxes, export restrictions, shareholder suits, labor laws--nearly any policy, really, that can't be captured in three bullet points.

Mind you, I'm not enamored with bureaucracy. I worked for the Census Bureau High-tech execs are rarely grateful for the average taxpayer. one summer in high school and have had my lifetime fill of hanging out at the lunch truck with government workers, thank you. Still, the public sector provides an important counterbalance to the lurid, inevitable excesses of private enterprise. Taxes stink, but so would the hog rendering plant that could be erected next door if restrictive zoning laws didn't exist. The "world without rules" that Internet adherents often speak of is actually already here. It's called Brazzaville.

Implicit in this structure is the idea of restraint, whether voluntary or not. Individuals can't ride Harleys through hotel lobbies. Likewise, corporations can only dominate a certain amount of resources, whether those are oil fields or computer screens. Imposing limitations on a public company is arbitrary, but so is the existence of the public company itself. Further, even Microsoft has to admit that the point where government authority comes to bear in its business is pretty remote.

While high tech's urge toward libertarianism can partially be explained away as naked self-interest, the answer mostly lies in engineering schools. Engineering education is based almost exclusively upon absolutes. Gravity pulls. Heat dissipates. Monty Python movies are funny. Not a lot of quibbling occurs.

Unfortunately, that need for clarity does not always translate easily to human society. People disagree. Rather than compromise or persuade, however, the scientifically educated plow forward with a faith logic. It rarely works. Usually, it just ends up in a flurry of testy email written in the "methinks" vernacular.

Throw millions of dollars at the situation and a combustible mix develops. People begin to assume a pure cause and effect relationship between their arguments and their wealth. They begin to buy instruments and form garage bands, too. Chaos and arrogance erupts.

It's the sort of lifestyle that Microsoft has made its stock in trade, and it's time to make them squirm.