Microsoft monopoly hurts all

November 08, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

In the fall of 1995, I bought a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion computer loaded with Microsoft Windows 95. But when I turned it on, Windows 95 wasn't what I saw. Instead, I was greeted by a cute, colorful animated screen that made it easy to launch programs and otherwise navigate through everyday use of the computer.

Many other PC manufacturers were doing the same thing -- they had concluded that Windows 95 was still too confusing for many of their customers, particularly first-time buyers.

Their motives weren't entirely altruistic. The cost of customer support was skyrocketing. HP estimated that three customer support calls wiped out its profits from one PC. Any program that could make computers easier to use out of the box and reduce technical support calls -- even by a few percentage points -- might save manufacturers millions. It would also save their customers millions of hours of wasted time and frustration.

Within six months, most of those helpful programs were gone from the marketplace. Microsoft had effectively outlawed them. And that tale is just one of many horror stories you'll discover if you read through U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's damning finding of fact in the Justice Department's antitrust suit against the software giant that was issued Friday.

In case after case, Jackson found, Microsoft spent millions to keep the competition at bay -- not just by writing better software, but by forcing computer makers to promote Microsoft's programs on the Windows desktop and making it as hard as possible for customers to get rival software. To get its way, Microsoft used the ultimate hammer ` refusing to license Windows to any PC maker who wasn't willing to comply with its orders. Given Windows' dominance of the desktop PC market, that would be a death sentence to any manufacturer who crossed Bill Gates & Co.

If all this seems abstract ` a battle among rich people trying to get richer at each other's expense ` the death of the friendly user interface shows just how Microsoft's single-minded pursuit of monopoly affected every one of us, and particularly hurt those who need the most help with their PCs.

As 1996 began, according to Jackson's findings, Microsoft was focusing on two goals. One was promoting its Web browser, Internet Explorer, and the Microsoft Network, its fledgling Internet service. To do this, Microsoft rigged Windows so that the icons for these programs appeared on the Windows desktop when users turned on their computers. Microsoft also made it impossible for the average user to remove these icons.

At the same time, Microsoft was worried about something called 3/4 middleware,E software that ran under Windows but allowed programmers to write useful applications that didn't directly employ Windows' underlying tools. Middleware programs, such Netscape's Navigator Web browser and Sun's Java programming language, would make it easier for programmers to write software for computers that run under different operating systems ` a threat to Windows.

Friendly replacements for the Windows 95 desktop ` which automatically loaded when Windows started up ` posed a threat on both counts. First, they could be used to obscure the Internet Explorer and Microsoft Network icons. Second, they could theoretically serve as middleware that PC makers could use with competing operating systems.

As a result, in spring 1996, Microsoft began to prohibit PC makers from removing any of Microsoft's icons from the desktop. Worse, it banned them from automatically starting up any third-party programs, including the cute little front end that HP devised to help its novice customers.

Microsoft claimed this was necessaryu to preserve the integrity of Windows ` and to be fair, some of these start-up programs were far from spectacular.

But the net effect was the elimination of any software that could making life easier for Windows users. Jackson quotes a letter from HP to Microsoft complaining that its Windows-related tech-support complaints increased by 10 percent and its return rate in retail stores skyrocketed after it was forced to give up the friendly interface it had installed on its consumer PCs.

What was Microsoft's response? Instead of making Windows better, it bought off the PC makers by reducing their licensing fees. This allowed them to recoup their increased tech-support costs, but it left customers like you and me holding the bag with computers that were harder to use.

It's impossible to assign a dollar cost to this frustration. In some cases, our problems with Windows are our own fault. Many of us don't want to take the time to learn how to use our computers. ` We expect them to work like toaster ovens ` just push a button and out comes toast. In reality, PCs are far more complicated because they can do so many more things than the average kitchen appliance.

But there are ways to make computers easier to operate ` and Microsoft essentially pulled the plug on manufacturers who tried to do it. This is just one example, among dozens, of Microsoft's arrogance and willingness to step on anyone and anything it remotely perceived as a competitive threat.

Jackson's finding is a long one, but it's clearly written and largely nontechnical (the jargon it uses is defined upfront). If you care about the future of technology, it's worth reading. You'll find it on the Justice Department's Web site at www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/f3800/msjudgex.htm

Send e-mail to mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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