My reply to "Is Microsoft a monopoly?"

A reply by Russell McOrmond

Introduction

This is a small response to an article written by KAZ Vorpal entitled "Is Microsoft a Monopoly? Should the Government Take it Over?". I found it when the author made a reference to it from a LinuxToday article entitled "Microsoft Cites Linux in DOJ Defense".

While you can send comments directly to the author, if you want a wide publication you might want to comment via the LinuxToday reference to the article, or via Comnet-www.

Before commenting on this article, I would like to point people to an article by the same author which I am in agreement on called Intellectual Monopoly Laws versus True Property Rights. The author and I seem to share some of the same basic philosophies, but have come to different conclusions on some of the details relating to Microsoft themselves.

One such detail is whether or not people hate Bill Gates because of jealousy, or because of his political views. I personally dislike Bill Gates as he has been a large lobbiest for stronger 'Intellectual Monopoly Laws' (To use KAZ's appropriate term). I am not concerned about whether or not Microsoft is the only company abusing these laws, more what companies and individuals have been lobbying to strengthen them. I do not believe that Microsoft not being the only offender should be able to be used as a defense.

A recent FORBES article called "Freeware Children" can put some context on this issue. Gates was one of the first to publicly exclaim that sharing ideas was "stealing", and he personally and through Microsoft have been lobbying to strengthen this particular view of the world ever since.


The reply...

An interesting article, and a good one to use to solidify your own feelings on the issue. For me, the basic question comes down to a few simple things brought up in the article.

I fundamentally do not believe "the average Joe" has the ability to choose or not choose Microsoft products. There are many factors that have realistically taken their freedom of choice away, most specifically in the area of restrictions to API's, and with pre-installations by hardware vendors. A consumers choice of applications tends to dictate what operating system they will run. The choice of what hardware vender to purchase from dictates what operating system is pre-installed on the computer, and the vast majority of people are not technically knowledgeable enough to change their O.S., regardless of what the alternative choice might be. These restrictions to freedom do not affect people like myself (Or KAZ) as we have high levels of technical abilities, but these restrictions very much exist for the average person.

When asking a local computer dealer (Who like most do not wish to be referenced) why they do not stock Linux on their shelves, they told me it was because Microsoft Canada said that if they started stocking Linux that they would loose their Microsoft Dealership status. That status has allowed them pricing advantages for MS products that effectively forces them to make an exclusive choice between whether they will sell Linux or Microsoft - due to other forces, that choice is already dictated to them.

Yes, that reseller could 'choose' to give up on selling MS products (Selling without a MS dealership prices them out of the market), or a consumer could choose to go to some other vender who sells alternatives, but these choices are made to be very risky for both the resellers and the end consumers by Microsoft. Unless you are a computer hack and can bypass these limitations, are you honestly given a choice?

The automobile analogy always comes up. Ignoring my feelings about automobiles for the moment, the analogy in the article doesn't seem to ring as valid:

KAZ wrote:

Well, some would cry, you can't use Windows products without Windows!

Umm...you can't use parts from a GM car without a GM car, either. If you think about it, this is a pretty silly complaint. People were never able to use DOS programs without DOS, and at one time MS-DOS had an even bigger market share among personal computers than Windows does now.

My car analogy goes something like this: The applications are the 'Car' that bring you places, and the O.S. is the road - the infrastructure you need to be able to use your car. Standards need to exist (Size of vehicle, speed limits for safety, driver training, basic Human<->Car interface for things like steering/breaking/etc) in order to allow vendors to create car 'choices' for consumers where their choice of vender for the car does not pre-determine what roads they can and cannot drive on, or what drivers can drive which cars.

This analogy works by flipping which is the car and which is the road, but the basic idea is that with the Windows API you you do not have a 'pluggable' environment where you can choose applications and choose the Operating System, independent of each other.

Another argument part of this paper is that since Microsoft is not the only vender abusing Monopoly-creating laws, that Microsoft should not be a target of any lawsuit. Those who read my article "The real issues behind the Microsoft anti-Trust lawsuits" will know that I don't believe Microsoft is the only problem, and that Netscape and Sun (Two of the vendors that are abusing this anti-trust case) are only different from Microsoft in their level of success with their monopoly building. Just because Microsoft is not the only company with these problems, doesn't mean they shouldn't be the first to be made an example of. I disagree with the author who suggests that Microsoft is not the most visable or worst of the monopolists 'today'. Bringing up Apple and IBM's misdeeds is useful to put things in context, but not relevant to the 'here and now'.

I'm glad patents are brought up. It seems the author and I agree on that point that breaking up MS isn't the real solution, and my solution would not be to break Microsoft up (Or worse, Nationalize Microsoft so that the U.S. Government becomes the monopoly controller), but to remove the ability of vendors to patent/copyright API's rather than just CODE, and thus compete in a free-market system on a level playing field.

Mentioning Java in the argument refuting the control that MS has over communications technology doesn't help simplify the issues. Java is just as much a monopoly technology as MS Windows is, and again the solution would be to revoke Sun's ability to patent/copyright the Java language definition, allowing other vendors to produce a 100% compatible alternatives.

KAZ wrote:

What about Microsoft's "anti-competitive business practices"?

Well hey, ever notice that "anti-competitive" seems to mean "overly competitive"? That seems a bit strange, doesn't it. Microsoft is mainly accused of competing too much.

Since most of us know that competition is a good thing, that benefits us, people who want to sabotage competition or certain competitors like to call competitive behavior "anti-competitive". They seem almost to think that using the opposite word from the truth will fool us into not noticing what's really happening.

Competition can be looked at in two different ways, using the analogy of a race. If one focuses on the running, the winner of the race is the one who runs the fastest. If one focuses only on the finish line, a runner can be 'first to the finish line' by tripping, shooting, or otherwise crippling the other runners.

Yes, we all know that competition is a good thing, but when we say that we mean the form where we are watching the runners and all gaining from that striving for excellence. Very few of us believe in the IBM/Apple/Microsoft/Netscape/Sun version of 'competition' where shooting your opponents is considered a valid way to be the first to the finish line. It's a form that doesn't benifit anyone other than the 'winner' of that race.

As to the 'Free browser' argument, this is also a red-herring. Internet Explorer is not 'Free', it is 'Bundled'. Internet Explorer is included in the price of every Windows desktop whether you use it or not. There is a version of IE for Macintosh, which is part of the investment that Microsoft made in Apple. As to the Solaris port: notice how it only showed up after the DOJ's case was filed - anyone want to put money down as to whether or not it will still be there after the case is over?

On the other hand, Netscape is using their browser for purposes of advertising. Their revenue is based on their server products, and on Advertisements included in *.netscape.com Web servers. (Watch for the 'My Netscape' button on all newer browsers, and other such things).

In both cases, the problem with the Monopoly isn't one of 'raising prices' as if monetary restrictions are the only things that matter. A good freedom fighter will want to fight against the tyranny of not only the state, but also of non-governmental organizations. The battleground being fought between the browsers is one where the winner gains control over electronic commerce. Computer Communications tools will be as important to our future economies as the transportation systems have been in the past. If we are to live in free countries we cannot allow any single entity or small group of entities, government or non-governmental, to gain that type of power.

As a recent example of this problem, check out the potential privacy issue with the Alexa/Netscape partnership. What information is the Netscape browser sending back to Alexa in order for it to create better "What's related" information? Is this information also being kept to create and then sell customer profiles?


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