The real issues behind the Microsoft anti-Trust lawsuits

Date: August, 1997.

All of computing is threatened, the very basis of what makes humans able to interact with a computer without needing to be a programmer is being claimed by a single Corporation. This is a threat to everyone else who uses basic computer communication tools.

Coalitions of computer companies are banding together to try to fight for their freedom, and the freedom of all computer users. Counter-lawsuits are being filed.

What am I talking about?

If you assumed I'm talking about Microsoft and the current series of anti-trust lawsuits against them, you would be mistaken. The few of us who have long been involved in computing activism might recognize this as being the "look-and-feel" lawsuits threatened by Apple computer against other Graphical User Interface (GUI) vendors such as Microsoft, Atari, Commodore and others. At this time, Microsoft was one of the "good guys" fighting alongside all the other GUI vendors against Apple. That period in our history included Xerox, the originators of the Windows-Icon-Mouse-Pointer (WIMP) system filing a counter-lawsuit against Apple because of lawsuits that Apple filed against others.

I am bringing up this historical perspective so that PESJ (Peace, Environment and Social Justice) activists do not lose sight of the real issues, and so that they will know who they can trust. My friends will tell you that I am not a big fan of Microsoft or Bill Gates, nor do I want people to be part of a shell game where whomever becomes the "good guy" in this round against the "bad monopoly" will grow to be the next monopoly.

This isn't the first time this has happened. It's not always the same companies trying to gain an advantage by trying to restrict fair competition:

  • "Look-and-feel" lawsuits from Apple in 1988 aimed mostly at their newest competitor, Microsoft.
  • Anti-Competitive lawsuit from Caldera against Microsoft in 1996 over its mis-use of a monopoly situation with MS-DOS which forms the basis of the operating system for Windows up to and including Window95 and possibly Windows98. Caldera currently owns DR-Dos, a potentially competing product if the marketplace were open.
  • The N0Tscape browser movement trying to protect the Internet against the browser-specific incompatibilities initiated by Netscape. Most people will remember all the sites with the "best viewed with Netscape" buttons. Netscape's attempt to domination of the field by inappropriately modifying its interpretation of the HTML language with custom tags was so deep that Microsoft, in order to break into that market, needed it's browsers to identify itself as being "Mozilla compatible" (Mozilla is the internal name for Netscape) to web servers that were serving up "Netscape only" versions of their Web pages.

I believe that the fundamental problem is not with Microsoft, Apple, IBM or other vendors who have held or attempted to hold monopoly positions at some time, but rather a system that rewards companies for attempting to create monopolies.

In any innovation or information based economy, there are two ways to succeed: continue to innovate and always make a better mouse-trap, or claim ownership to the concept of a mouse-trap and thus disallow any competition. Applying this to the free-market race analogy: we want a race that strives to push people to always be faster and faster runners, not a race where crippling other runners becomes part of how one becomes the first (and possibly only standing) runner to make it to the finish line.

Consumers need to become more aware of these issues. There are many ways to help the computing field to become "more honest" by rewarding innovation, and condemning anti-competitive or other monopolistic practices.

Many of the companies I have mentioned have made headway in these areas. Apple has been a minor supporter of the Open-Source software movement through its support of MkLinux: Linux for the Power Macintosh. Netscape has recently announced the release of source code to its browser to the Open-Source community, thus allowing it to be kept by that community as a reference for the HTML standard.

How you can help?

  • Ask any software vendors, regardless of whether they are Open-Source or Secret-Source, if they support multiple computing platforms and support those who support multiple platforms. As an example, if your Word-Processing choices have been brought down to being either Microsoft Word (Available only for Microsoft Windows and MacOS), or Corel WordPerfect (Available in many platforms including Linux), the support would go to Corel. If your choice is between Microsoft Internet Explorer (Available only for Windows, Mac and two propritary flavours of Unix) or Netscape (over 10 platforms including a number of Open-Source platforms), then Netscape should be your choice.
  • Support software programs that conform to open standards which allow for competitive products. Products that create yet another proprietary disk file format (EG: a vender owned word-processor file format) would be an example of a product to avoid. If they do have a new file format, ask if this is an openly documented format, or a proprietary (EG: Secret to a single company) format.
  • If you are a WEB page author, create your pages using browser-independent standard HTML codes. There is even a Web Interoperability Pledge you can take, and many resources to help you make your pages accessable.
  • Support local and small software business whenever possible. Smaller companies will not be able to create anti-competitive situations simply due to their smaller size.
  • Support the Open-Source computing movement which ensures a level playing field by not allowing one vendor to leverage secret information to avoid competition.
This piece also appeared in the Peace and Environment News (PEN), July/August 1998.

References and links.

(Updated January 2002)