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Customized Windows: Why not?

Former Xywrite fanatic CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says a world where PC makers could decide what should get included with the OS might not be such a terrible idea after all.

Playing the role of Joe User, let me describe my usual boot-up process when I roll into the office each workday.

After launching Microsoft Windows, I fire up Microsoft Outlook and check my e-mail. Then I start Microsoft Messenger so my contacts know that I'm around in case they need to ping me. Next I'm opening Microsoft Word so I can get cracking on that column I'm already late on delivering. And during the downtime it takes for all these various programs to fully load, I'm skimming the news on various and sundry Web sites, courtesy of Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Welcome to my computing world, where it's all Microsoft, all the time.

It wasn't always this way.

Before taking the easy way out, I used to access the Internet using Netscape Navigator. But, truth be told, that product's no longer as good as Explorer. I started out my Internet messaging days a devotee of America Online's Instant Messenger, but that application, too, has since become passé. You won't find a bigger fan of Lotus Organizer, but Lotus (thank you IBM!) orphaned that personal information manager long ago. And if the world were just and fair, we'd all be using Xywrite, my first--and still--beloved word processor.

Such is the power of a company that enjoys a desktop PC monopoly, so that even a holdout, like yours truly, was ultimately persuaded to go with the integuments of what is essentially a software suite. It just made things easier because all the products were designed to work smoothly with each other.

Multiply this one individual experience by several hundred million people around the globe and the real-world implications are troubling for all they suggest about the constellation of power in the computer industry, not to mention the future of technological innovation.

If the world were just and fair, we'd all be using Xywrite.

Earlier this week, Bill Gates got me thinking about all this after he sat down in a Washington courtroom and acknowledged that yes, Microsoft can build a modular version of Windows that would let computer makers decide what apps to include with it. In fact, such a product--Windows XP Embedded--already exists.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft prohibits consumers from running XP Embedded on their PCs. Over the years, it has adamantly opposed any move that would pull Windows apart from Internet Explorer, arguing that the resulting fragmentation would create chaos in the marketplace. With different versions of Windows, how would you be able to guarantee that third-party applications would work "seamlessly" with the operating system?

And yet something of the sort already exists today. Last time I checked, there were any number of flavors of Windows out there--Windows XP, Windows Me, Windows 98, even Windows 95--but the walls of Jericho haven't come tumbling down. True, some ISVs (independent software vendors) have complained that their products don't work with the newer upgrades because of different code bases in the underlying operating systems. Still, it hasn't led to a major outcry.

Now let's play what if.

Last time I checked, there were any number of flavors of Windows out there...but the walls of Jericho haven't come tumbling down.

What if the court decided Microsoft must create a version of its operating system that allowed PC makers to decide what programs should get bundled in? My assumption is that OEMs and third-party developers would have strong incentive to make sure any applications work smoothly with Windows--otherwise they'd hear it from their customers.

Microsoft wouldn't take this lying down and would redouble its efforts to make sure its products worked better than rivals' products. All that Adam Smith stuff would then come into play--prices would fall, software quality would improve, and real competition would be the order of the day. I guarantee there are a lot of bright bulbs out there that would finally come out from underground.

It may not lead to the second coming of Xywrite, but it would be a fresh start for a software market nowadays slouching toward mediocrity.