Once upon a time, an operating system was the simple, efficient program that loaded when you started your PC and turned it into something more than an expensive doorstop.
It set up communication between your PC's processor and its disk drives, memory chips, monitor, keyboard and other gadgets. It served as a launch pad for other programs, provided tools for programmers to use when they wrote their software, and served as a digital traffic cop for everything that went on in your computer.
If you wanted to use your PC to write a letter, dial up an online service, track your appointments, keep your company's books or play a game, you bought some other kind of software to do it. Like a faithful but discreet servant, the operating system was supposed to help those application programs do their jobs, offer assistance when necessary and otherwise stay out of the way.
Now fast-forward a decade, as Microsoft and its allies spend half a billion dollars to unleash the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, known as Windows XP.
Suddenly, the operating system is a hot potato. The U.S. Senate wants to investigate it. The courts say Microsoft used Windows to violate antitrust laws. Competitors say Bill Gates' Evil Empire is using it to dominate the Internet. A pack of states attorneys general is talking about a lawsuit to keep it off the shelves. And some of the richest companies in the world are battling to become a part of it.
Why all this fuss? Because, for better or worse, the software that runs our computers increasingly affects our lives and pocketbooks.
More and more, we use PCs to connect with the outside world for information, communication, shopping and entertainment. We entrust our computers with personal information so valuable that everyone with something to peddle wants a shot at it.
As a result, Windows has unprecedented, insidious power to influence our behavior.
To understand how this works, consider what would happen if ABC could rig 90 percent of the country's TVs to tune into its network when they're turned on. Sure, you could change the channel, but would millions of extra eyeballs give ABC an advantage? You bet.
Or, consider what would happen if Exxon could equip new cars to warn you when you're low on gas - but only when you pass an Exxon station. Or if Shell could get manufacturers to build cars that couldn't use other refiners' gas?
That's what's happening in your computer. Instead of being your servant, the computer has become a battleground for competing economic interests - mostly Microsoft's, but not exclusively.
There's no question that Microsoft has extended the definition of "operating system" into areas that would leave early programmers shaking their heads in amazement.
In fact, Microsoft's decision to tie Internet Explorer, its Web browser, directly into the core code of Windows 95, was a key to its antitrust conviction in federal court.
You might think this would be a caution to Microsoft, but Windows XP goes even further. The first thing you might notice when XP arrives in October is that Internet Explorer 6 has trouble with some Web pages. They use the popular Java programming language developed by Sun Microsystems, one of Microsoft's chief competitors.
After years of litigation with Sun, Microsoft has decided to eliminate Java support from its browser entirely. To make it work, you'll have to download a plug-in. Microsoft hopes you won't bother.
But Web browsers are old news. In XP, Microsoft is going after digital music and video. Its new Windows Media Player includes a mini-Web browser of its own - targeted right at Microsoft's music Web site, of course. It will play music broadcast over the Web in Microsoft's own format, but it won't play competing RealAudio music streams. Are you getting the picture here?
By default, Media Player records digitial music in Microsoft's Windows Music Audio format, not the popular MP3 scheme that most users prefer. If you try to burn an MP3 song into an audio CD, the quality will be unacceptably bad. You can download an extra-cost plug-in that will burn MP3 files onto audio CD's or find a free "ripper" online. Microsoft is betting you wont.
Microsoft is also pushing its iproved Messenger program, which includes voice and video chat. But to use it, you'll have to sign up for a Microsoft "Passport" account. That's a hook into another Microsoft project called Hailstorm, designed to let Microsoft be the keeper of all your critical personal and financial information.
Earlier this month, Microsoft and Kodak got into a squabble about whose software would start up when you hook up a digital camera to your computer. The software contains automated links to online photo printing services - links that Microsoft controls and can charge for.
Expect other companies to fight back. America Online has a new deal with Compaq to put an AOL icon on the Windows XP desktop of Compaq's upcoming machines. That makes it possible to sign up for AOL with a single click.
Other companies are just as likely to pay for similar placement. So instead of getting a useful bundle of software with a new computer, you're likely to get one full of stuff that was placed there by the highest bidder.
As a consumer who upgrades to Windows XP or buys a new computer equipped with it, you should be very suspicious of anything that shows up on your desktop. Before you decide to use what Microsoft or the PC manufacturer gives you, check around to see if there's something better available - a program that's more likely to be your servant and less likely to be the result of a hidden agenda.