Splitting Microsoft not user-friendly

June 14, 2000|By Neal Lavon

WASHINGTON -- Now that the lawyers, dot-com analysts and pundits have had their say on the court-ordered Microsoft breakup, perhaps it's time to hear from someone who hasn't spoken out -- the end user.

I'm the guy who goes out and actually buys the operating systems and software programs that magically spring to life on my monitor, and I would like to say something about all this.

And that is the bottom line for me is, I don't really care who makes a computer's OS, as long as it works. As far as I (and most other people) can tell, Windows does. It's not perfect, but Windows 98 Second Edition has seemed pretty stable to me. And since I can't write my own operating system, I'll gladly pay Gates & Co. to do it. It's fairly easy to use and it works almost all the time. Who could ask for more than that?

Windows came pre-installed on my PC and the upgrades have been relatively inexpensive, usually under $100. If you don't like Windows, there are other operating systems.

To a simple end user like me, Windows won the operating system competition, not just as a result of Bill Gates' ruthless practices, but because Microsoft produced a decent product at a competitive price. The company is also very sensitive to consumer demand.

Windows dominance meant that software producers could hold down costs by not putting out multiple versions of their products to satisfy multiple operating systems. They all work with the Windows OS and work predictably. To tell you the truth, as a simple end user, where's the problem?

It also seems to this end user that Microsoft's competitors have plied Congress with good old-fashioned non-cyber cash in the hopes of using the federal and state governments to reverse the decision of the marketplace. Microsoft's biggest crime, if you read between the lines of the judge's decision, is that, unlike its competitors, it didn't bow and scrape low enough -- what the government calls "arrogance" -- before the mandarins of Washington.

If only this money funneled to Capitol Hill could have been spent on research and development rather than lawyers and politicians, perhaps new and better products with lower prices could have come to market.

And there's the rub.

This end user thinks that if Microsoft is broken up or forced to give away its Windows code, the computer makers who install Windows on their machines will, at first, not tinker much with the OS because of customer preference. But eventually, we'll start seeing "improvements."

Then, the old reliable software programs that you've already paid for will probably not work in the new machines because the OS has been changed. You'll need to purchase a new version just to accommodate the modified OS. And what if your particular flavor of Windows does not sell well enough to justify the software makers producing a compatible product? What then?

To an end user like me, having to produce several versions of the same software won't lower prices, it will probably raise them. Right now, lots of Microsoft programs interact well with Windows, as do popular third-party programs like the utilities made by Symantec. Are all of these going to work in the same way with each other -- and at the same prices -- as they do now? Something tells me they won't. My antennae say there's going to be a long period of end user chaos and frustration.

And I can also see this scenario developing: When compatibility problems inevitably arise, and you call tech support at the computer maker, they'll likely tell you it's a Windows problem, call Microsoft.

When you call Microsoft, they'll tell you it's a computer maker problem, call the computer maker. And back and forth you'll go, until, finally, you need to buy the original Microsoft OS, and then look for the suddenly out-of-print software programs that ran on it, which will likely fetch premium prices on a burgeoning underground computer black market.

So rather than the "benefits" that government-approved "competition" will bring to the market, for us -- the mere end users -- it's more like the dreaded Blue Screen of Death.

Why doesn't the government just step back, don't fix what ain't broke and leave the computer market to the companies and end users who have created a relationship that works and has delivered great things to simple end users like me?

Neal Lavon is a computer user in Takoma Park.

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