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 December 1, 1997

Justice department should back off Microsoft probe

Actually, I think this is really just a computer-business thing. While many people who are closely involved with the computer business hate Microsoft, the average Joe or Joanne really doesn˜t care. Microsoft software continues to sell well, and I˜d bet that if you poll the average buyer in Best Buys or CompUSA, you˜d find that there really isn˜t that much of a feeling either way.
Now, I˜ve got to say that I˜m not a Microsoft cheerleader. I do think they produce pretty good software — I also think it could easily be better. I know a lot of MS-haters complain that MS software sucks … but I˜d like to know which company is consistently producing easy-to-use, bug-free software — I haven˜t found it yet.
But I also think Microsoft has become arrogant in its old age, that some of its business practices border on the unethical; I˜m just not sure which side of the border those practices sit.
And I˜ve written about Microsoft˜s dubious practices before. Still, I think there˜s an important issue raised by three lawsuits Microsoft is currently involved in, and by the fight over who controls Java. And I˜ve found myself siding with Microsoft in one case, against it over Java.
The first suit, the one almost everyone who isn˜t living in a cave has heard about, is the one by the Department of Justice against Microsoft. In this suit, the DoJ claims that Microsoft is breaking an earlier agreement by including Microsoft Internet Explorer with every copy of Windows that it distributes. This, they claim, is forcing other browser publishers (notably Netscape Communications, of course), out of the business of creating browsers.
The second suit, and one that has garnered less attention in the mainstream press, is a breach-of-contract suit filed by Sun Microsystems against Microsoft. Sun claims that Microsoft agreed to include full Java support in its products. Java is a relatively new programming language which seems to hold more promise than actual value at present.
Java programs can be run on any computer that has a Java interpreter installed. Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer are both Java interpreters, meaning that Java programs can (if you˜re very lucky) run inside these Web browsers.
Sun is upset because, they claim, Microsoft is not living up to its agreement to fully support Java, that it has omitted parts of the Java specifications from its products, so some Java programs may not run inside its products.
The third suit is a countersuit, Microsoft against Sun, essentially claiming that it was Sun that didn˜t live up to the original agreement. Microsoft claims that Sun did not deliver the working software that was required by the agreement, for example.
In other words, they˜re saying: How can we add Java support if Sun won˜t provide working software?
Now, here˜s what it looks like from where I sit. First, for all its problems, Microsoft Windows does provide a single operating system for which programmers can create software; that˜s a real boon to the software industry and, by extension, to software buyers.
If we had 10 different operating systems in common use, the software business would be very different. We˜d have a smaller selection of software to pick from (just ask a Mac user!), and that software would be more expensive (just ask a Mac user!).
Does that mean MS should be allowed to force other companies out of business by adding things to the operating system? Ah, that˜s a difficult question. What should MS be allowed to add to the operating system? Should a team of lawyers at the Department of Justice define how an operating system should develop?
Since Microsoft first released MS-DOS, operating systems have added scores of important features, and Microsoft probably wasn˜t the first to produce many of them. Windows wasn˜t the first "shell," after all. Microsoft File Manager wasn˜t the first file-management program.
But all these things are now regarded as integral parts of a modern operating system. Do we really want lawyers picking and choosing the components that should be part of the next generation of operating systems? If Bill Gates believes that a Web browser should be an integral part of an operating system — and I must admit I tend to agree — should some government lawyer be able to force him to change his plans?
Now, onto Java. Java˜s a mess, as far as I˜m concerned. Try running a Java application on the Web. I say try, because there˜s a good chance it won˜t work. The problem is that each browser supports Java in a slightly different way. Wouldn˜t it be better if one company had control of Java, rather than two major companies fighting it out?
That˜s why I˜m against Microsoft on this one. If Java is to develop in any useful way, it needs to develop in a single direction. Programmers tell me that Java really is a great programming language. But unless both programmers and users can be sure that Java applications will run, Java can˜t survive — at least not as a widely used product, though it may survive as a niche product.
In general I don˜t like the idea of monopolies; I wouldn˜t support a baked-bean monopoly or an ice-cream monopoly. But operating systems and programming languages are not baked beans. By providing a consistent and stable development "platform," an operating-system monopoly can be beneficial.
And it doesn˜t make sense to hand over the software-development planning to a group of lawyers.

Actually, I think this is really just a computer-business thing. While many people who are closely involved with the computer business hate Microsoft, the average Joe or Joanne really doesn˜t care. Microsoft software continues to sell well, and I˜d bet that if you poll the average buyer in Best Buys or CompUSA, you˜d find that there really isn˜t that much of a feeling either way.
Now, I˜ve got to say that I˜m not a Microsoft cheerleader. I do think they produce pretty good software — I also think it could easily be better. I know a lot of MS-haters complain…

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