Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Playing Monopoly

How the case against Microsoft already is helping consumers

By James Hanback Jr.

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Unless you've spent the last few weeks cowering under your bed, you probably know that a judge has confirmed in a finding of fact what everyone already knew: Microsoft--the multimillion-dollar company that produces the various incarnations of the Windows operating system as well as Microsoft Office and a wide variety of other software products--is a monopoly.

No doubt, your thoughts have been filled with questions like, "What's going to happen now?" And, "How will this affect me?" At least those are the questions that analysts in the media have been attempting to answer since the finding of fact announcement was made two Fridays ago.

So rather than attempt to fill your head with what's ahead for the computer industry (and this finding will affect both the hardware and software sides of it), I'd like to point out a few things the Microsoft vs. the Department of Justice trial has already helped to bring about, things that no one really would have expected a couple of years ago when it looked as though Bill Gates would be software kingpin forever.

Mac on Track

Although the resurrection of Apple Computer as an industry force to be reckoned with actually happened before Janet Reno announced the filing of the lawsuit against Microsoft, the company has had almost nothing but good times since. The lawsuit deserves some credit for drawing attention to the fact that there are other platforms out there. And one of the most recognized of those alternative platforms is the Macintosh.

The innovation known as the iMac, the release of more powerful workstations and servers built around the G3 (and now the G4) processor, combined with the announcement and upcoming release of a more robust operating system have revived the passions of Mac fanatics around the world, and have even converted some former Windows users. In part because American consumers became more aware of alternatives to Microsoft products, Apple is thriving again, and the Macintosh platform is healthier than it's been in a long time.

The Best Things In Life Are Free

Remember the so-called "Browser Wars?" Netscape Communications, before America Online bought it, made two advances for its Web browser as a direct result of the wide availability of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which was shipped with Windows (among other software) and freely downloadable from the Internet. Netscape changed its license for the standard version of Communicator from shareware to freeware, and it opened up the Mozilla project source code, allowing programmers outside of Netscape to examine the code and submit modifications, which may or may not be included in Netscape Communicator 5.0.

Although Netscape's Web browser market share still isn't what it used to be, there will always be people who prefer it over Internet Explorer, if for no other reason than IE is from Microsoft.

Charge of the Penguin Brigade

Speaking of freely distributed and open source code, perhaps no other group has been more vocally anti-Microsoft over the past two years than the devotees of the open source operating system known as Linux. Linux is a Unix clone which was developed by Linus Torvalds when he was a student at the University of Helsinki in 1991. It's been a well-known operating system in hacker circles for years since then (and is responsible for running a good-sized chunk of servers on the Internet), but only recently started getting attention from the general public as a possible alternative to Windows.

Adamant that operating systems should be low cost, and that Linux is in many ways a better, more secure solution in a networked world than is Windows, Linuxphiles drew attention to their OS by staging events like Windows Refund Day, when a group of Open Source Movement advocates descended on Microsoft's offices asking for refunds for unopened, unused copies of Windows that came with their computers.

Some Linux distributors, like the now widely recognized Red Hat Software, also did their part by courting the press and partnering with computer hardware makers to bundle Linux with some machines (and some of that was territory that had been exclusively Microsoft).

Although it was mainly considered a threat to Microsoft's Windows NT Server operating system a couple of years ago, Linux has been found so scalable that it's taking over some home desktops as well.

Come on in, the Source is Fine

There's something that feels a little sinister nowadays about proprietary software, especially after surprises like the discovery of Microsoft's unique identifier in Windows '98 earlier this year. For those who do not recall, Windows '98 was found to contain a unique serial number that was written to Microsoft Office documents, and could have been used to identify the computer from which the document originated.

This discovery concerned vocal privacy advocates, and Microsoft later released a patch for Office that removed the unique identifier from existing Office documents and prevented it from being written to new ones.

Enter the Open Source Movement, a computer software movement which adheres to the philosophy that if you release the source code for your software and allow other people to modify it, it can only get better. Likewise, if you know how to read the programming language, you'll know exactly what that program is supposed to do with your hardware and operating system.

The fact that Microsoft has closely guarded its source code became a factor in the trial when competitors stated that the company withheld important technological information about Windows in order to enhance its own software's chances in the marketplace. Microsoft has also been accused of deliberately sabotaging competitor software from within the Windows operating system source code.

With those thoughts in mind, it's no wonder the media turned an interested eye on the Open Source Movement. And through the media, so has the public. Open source software has developed a reputation as being more stable because bugs are caught and fixed sooner than companies releasing proprietary software.

Also, open source is often inexpensive or freely downloadable from the Internet, which is a bonus to any consumer.

The Future?

Analyze it any way you want. The truth is, we cannot be positive that the gigantic software company that has an operating system that runs more than 80 percent of the world's desktop computers will learn any lessons from its bout with the Department of Justice.

In fact, Microsoft was attempting to put its own positive spin on the finding of fact just hours after it was released, pointing to comments the judge made about the innovations Microsoft has brought to the personal computer.

So what will the finding of fact mean for Microsoft and the future of the computer software industry? It's a wait-and-see, but you must remember that even if the company manages to come out of the trial a little bruised, but not broken, the word is out. And what people didn't seem to know two years ago, they most certainly know now.

There are other solutions.

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