Microsoft won't change overnight

June 12, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

Now that a federal judge has decided that technologys premier monopoly should be chopped into two monopoxlies, the obvious question is: Whats in it for you and me?

The answer is, not much, for a while.

In fact, Judge Thomas Penfield Jacksons ruling that Microsoft should be broken into separate operating system and application software companies is merely the start of an appeals process that could last two to three years.

Microsoft, which set no fewer than 12 world records for arrogance during the course of its trial on antitrust charges, naturally says it will prevail in the higher courts.

Moreover, some industry analysts argue that the whole issue of Microsoft dominaxtion is moot because the Next Big Thing in technology is networked computing. Acxcording to this vision, Interxnet appliances and handheld digital assistants that dont depend on Winxdows will gradually replace the PC that Microsoft staked out as its own turf.

Its true that almost everyxone involved in the case, inxcluding Jackson, expects the decision to be modified in some way. But the evidence that Gates & Co. bludgeoned the competition into submisxsion with a variety of strong-arm business practices is so overwhelming that it would be hard for even the most pro-business appeals court to ignore. The company will not emerge as the Microsoft we love to hate.

Nor is Microsoft's playpen, the desktop personal computer, likely to disappear into the Neverland of eight-track tapes and vinyl records. Were not going to use Internet appliances to write letxters, reports or term papers, dexvelop business models, edit photographs, keep our financial records or run the company payroll.

So what are you and I likely to see if Microsoft is broken up, or at least forced to erect a Berlin Wall between its Windows and applicaxtion divisions? Two forces work against any sudden change.

The first is the law of inertia. People are naturally reluctant to change the way they work unless they're convinced that something far better is available. This is particularly true for businesses, which value continuity and reliability far more than innovation.

Microsoft's desktop operating systems and programs perform well for most of us. Thanks to a combination of predatory business practices, competitors mistakes and its own willingness to sink billions into research and development, Microsoft has made Word and Excel the standards for the two applications that power the business world -- word processing and spreadsheets.

Second, by now there's not much competition left. WordPerfect, by far the most popular word processor before Windows, now has only a tiny fraction of the market, and Corel, the troubled Canadian company that owns it, announced massive layoffs last week.

Lotus 1-2-3, which ruled the spreadsheet world before Windows, is also a minor player in a market dominated by Excel. Lotus is now owned by IBM, which is far more interested in pushing Lotus Notes, its hot corporate database and communications program, than marketing for the masses.

While you'll rarely hear Apple Computer executives talk about it, Word and Excel are also the most popular applications in their class for the Macintosh. In fact, outside of the graphics trade, Microsoft is the largest single publisher of Macintosh software.nd-butter applications. In fact, the only competitor with the spunk and resources to take on Microsoft in the core business market is Sun Microsystems, which picked up an applications suite called StarOffice and is now marketing versions that run on Windo

The same goes for Web browsers. Although Microsofts efforts to promote Internet Explorer and eradicate the competition were central to the governments case, its impossible to escape the fact that IE is now a better Web browser than its main competitor, Netscape Navigator.

Since Jacksons order prohibits Microsoft from forcing manufacturers to make Internet Explorer the only choice for users, its possixble that well see Netscape on more new computers, and that America Online, which owns the program, will put more effort into rejuvenatxing the once-dominant browser. Theres also an opening for smaller browser companies, such as Norways Opera A/S, but its doubtful that any major PC manufacturer would risk putting a relatively unknown program on its machines.

The end result is that where it counts most, Microsoft (as one or two companies) is still the devil we know and will be for some time.

On the other hand, Jacksons order might result in computers that are easier to use, if manufacturers are willing to take the initiative. Theres no doubt that Windows is still too confusing for many users. In the mid-1990s major manufacturers began selling PCs with user-friendly shells that hid the Windows desktop and made it easier for users to launch programs and manage their information. Worried that these middleware programs threatened Windows itself, Microsoft prohibited PC makers from using them, and they disappeared.

Jackson noted this behavior in his original finding of fact, and his final ruling specifically prohibited Microsoft from this kind of brow-beating. The result could be Windows computers that look and feel a lot different than todays machines. Whether theyll be better remains to be seen, but the judge has restored the opportunity for programmers to make our lives easier.

In the long run, the breakup of Microsoft could well extend its reach and make us even more dependent on the company. For example, theres no reason why either Microsoft company couldnt develop a shell for machines running versions of the Unix operatin

Finally, a Microsoft applications company divorced from its Winxdows roots might well be tempted to develop versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint and other products for Unix computers. These are good programs, far better than any that exist in the Unix world.

So the long-range result of the breakup could be more Microsoft, not less. Is that good or bad? Think about it.

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