Tech Industry

Bullpen: Of broken bones and Microsoft

It was a long, hard trail for both the government and Microsoft in the landmark antitrust case. Equally grueling was watching it all, according to reporter Joe Wilcox.

Covering the Microsoft trial is a curse.

The last CNET reporter on the trial broke his arm. Recently, I joined him, with a break below the shoulder just before the government's remedy proposal.

I can't blame my affliction on a Microsoft assault squad or an angry mob of government lawyers. (Instead, I blame rabbits. I was chasing one when I fell on my arm.)

Nonetheless, I do have a complaint. Redmond's own remedy: Special Coverage I see merit to the government's case, but I also recognize validity in Microsoft's position. I fault both sides for not settling the case and for their entrenched black-and-white posturing: the government's portrayal of Microsoft as an evil empire thwarting innovation at every turn, and Microsoft's insistence it has never crossed the line in pursuit of its business interests.

Polarization in the case runs deep. Readers strongly support one side or the other. Of the thousands of emails received by CNET about this case, almost none are neutral.

But both sides ignore that businesses, like the people who build them, are flawed and quite capable of bringing both benefit and harm to others.

Consumers benefited from Microsoft's dominance, which led to software that could be used and shared by the masses. Only a few years ago, sharing files with co-workers or across companies could be a frustrating experience. The success of Microsoft products helped alleviate this problem. Microsoft also can take credit for overall lower software prices. The government failed to truly recognize these and other contributions.

But the government is right that Microsoft hurt consumers by aggressively working to preserve its tired Windows franchise. Microsoft's public relations machine calls this effort the company's right to innovate. But how innovative is it to distribute crash-prone software and then convince the public that frequent reboots are normal? EKG machines, or respirators, use operating systems, as do many other electronic devices. Would anyone stand for rebooting life-saving equipment during an operation? Score one for the government.

On the other hand, I would disagree with the government's contention that Microsoft robs consumers of choice. In February 1999, I largely converted from PCs running Windows 98 to the Mac. I switched to the Mac because I get more work done and because Mac OS is fun to use. I crash my system less often--maybe once a week vs. once or more a day--than with Windows 98.

But Apple has less than 4 percent of desktop and portable computer market share, with the bulk belonging to Windows. In a truly competitive market, Microsoft would have to make better, more stable products. Monopolies do not need to improve products because they have no real incentives for such efforts.

More on choice: I continued to pay for Netscape Communicator even though Microsoft offered Internet Explorer for free. I stopped shelling out for Netscape's browser when Internet Explorer surged ahead in speed and features. The government assumes no one would want another browser because Microsoft bundles Internet Explorer with Windows. Shortsighted, I say.

But a compelling argument can Breaking the giant: Special Coverage be made that Netscape stopped innovating because Microsoft's monopoly might affect Netscape's ability to distribute its product and declining company morale.

This ties into another major shortcoming of the government's case. Microsoft may pack a strong monopoly punch, but it knocked out many competitors because they made mistakes at crucial junctures. Word's triumph over WordPerfect or Excel's toppling Lotus 1-2-3 had more to do with those companies' blunders and an aggressive Microsoft swooping in for the kill.

Let's face it: Many of Microsoft's products are not the best available. Many are just good enough. The government assumed the success of just-good-enough products over better ones had to be because of Microsoft's monopoly muscle. In some instances, I don't doubt this was true. But anyone covering technology for even a few years knows Microsoft is a better marketer than software developer--and that has as much to do with its success as does Windows' dominance.

Still, the government introduced compelling evidence that Microsoft used its Windows monopoly to hoist mediocre products on the masses. Microsoft's unwillingness to admit any fault reminds me of the whining I occasionally hear from my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Molly. That alone justifies the government's action. Despite Microsoft's tremendous contribution to the technology sector, the economy and consumers, Microsoft's contentious attitude indicates its bad behavior would continue.

The government's unreflective position is also deplorable. Trustbusters' posturing during settlement talks and its remedy proposal show an inherent distrust of Microsoft, an inability to accept the company's contributions, and an unwillingness to find middle ground for compromise. Leaks coming from the government about failed settlement discussions and the remedy proposal needlessly punished Microsoft's share value.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson could rule as early as this week on the case, potentially ordering Microsoft be broken into two or more companies. As a consumer, I am supposed to benefit from this decision, according to the government. Microsoft claims the ruling will harm me.

But I can't help wondering if both sides really are more concerned about winning than consumers. And I only have 205 bones left to break.