There have been many arguments and issues that have been raised with the controversy over Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Justice’s claim against Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates of monopolistic practices in bundling its internet browser “Internet Explorer” into its popular Windows computer operating system. By doing this, Microsoft would effectively crush its competitors (it’s main rival being Netscape Navigator), and acquire a monopoly over the software that people use to access the Internet.
I recently heard a listener on NPR (National Public Radio) comment about the monopoly issue between Microsoft and the U.S. D.O.J. that “Intellectual endeavors are vastly infinite and thus cannot be monopolized.” I wonder if the person who said this has ever tried telling that to Bill Gates. More importantly, is such a statement true? Does computer software constitute an intellectual endeavor that cannot be monopolized? To answer this issue, an inductive argument can be applied to determine if Microsoft truly has a monopoly over the computer industry. To say that something is infinite implies that there is an endless supply of it. Is this the case in terms of the Internet and the software that is used to “navigate” or “explore” the Internet as the two leading Internet Browsers have been dubbed by their makers? The resources of the Internet may seem infinitely vast, but it is wholly finite. There is an abundance of information out there on the Internet that it seems unlikely that any one company or even a country like the U.S. could ever monopolize this vast data network. By the nature of how the Internet works and how information is stored and shared on the network, it is true that a monopoly cannot be held over the intellectual information stored within the Internet. On this point I will accede to the original author’s claim that intellectual endeavors cannot be monopolized, but this is vastly different from the issue that stands before Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Justice. The question that must be distinguished is not if Microsoft will gain a monopoly over the Internet, but if it will acquire a monopoly on how people access the Internet. These two are wholly separate issues. This is not a question of control of intellectual information, but the means by which people gain *access* to that information. Even if the information provided by the Internet was infinite, the tools by which to get to that information is not. And thus a monopoly of the software to gain access to the Internet is very much possible. There are many corridors and keys that allow someone to gain access to the Internet. The real question here is whether Microsoft is seeking to widen it’s doors at the expense of others and at the same time seeking gatekeeper access to the Internet by seeking to obtain the only key that allows access to the Internet. A metaphor of this problem can be explained through a library building that has many entrances in which to reach the knowledge of books contained within. Is Microsoft seeking to close off the other entrances of other providers so that the only access is through its entrance? It would be very tempting to say yes, but that would be wholly unfair. Now that the problem and issue which is presented to us is clear, an examination of whether or not Microsoft is violating any anti-trust (anti-monopolistic) laws can now proceed.
Before he installed Windows 95, John Dodge connected to the Internet using software from a Microsoft competitor, CompuServe’s Internet in a Box. Not anymore. Windows 95 silently disabled a key piece of his setup and made it too difficult for him to reinstall it. Dodge was not a novice. He is senior executive editor of the trade journal PC Week and so had access to the highest level support engineers. Even software professionals learn to take the path of least resistance, in this case, the path leading to Microsoft. He has become a regular user of the new Microsoft Network, though he has trouble with its Internet features. Still, he believes Microsoft executives when they deny trying to gain market share by sabotaging competitors’ software. He just wonders whether Microsoft has a full appreciation of its actions in the marketplace. There is reason to believe that Microsoft does (Gleick 1). If a seasoned computer expert was unable to disable the bug planted by Microsoft’s operating system then how are normal everyday lay people supposed to contend against any sabotage which could be silently planted into our computers without our knowledge?
In another response from a computer industry leader, we get a glimpse of the power Microsoft has and the potential power which it is capable of wielding in the future. I personally believe that Microsoft is the most powerful economic force in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, says Eric Schmidt, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, a minicomputer and networking company whose business used to be remote from Microsoft’s but now finds itself under direct competitive pressure. Some of Microsoft’s control over computing, at all levels, is obvious. Much, however, is invisible. Even longtime insiders are just beginning to understand the nature of that power: how Microsoft acquired it, preserves it and exercises it. Schmidt is not alone in his views in the computer world. The question of what to do about Microsoft is going to be a central public policy issue for the next 20 years, says Mitchell Kapor, the founder and former CEO of Lotus Development Corporation, once the leading PC software company. Policymakers don’t understand the real character of Microsoft yet, the sheer will-to-power that Microsoft has (Gleick 2-3).
Netscape recently released its source codes. This move by Netscape caused a shock within the computer industry. These codes which are closely guarded secrets of computer programmers acts very much like a Rosetta Stone that deciphers the programming language. The owners of Netscape did this in the hopes of being able to compete against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in the browser market. By allowing other programmers to view the programming framework, Netscape also hoped that the combined forces would allow its Internet browser to evolve much more rapidly in public hands than in private development. By doing this, Netscape made no immediate economic gains, but hopes its product will survive to evolve and compete against Microsoft even long after the company Netscape is gone (NPR News May 5). This was seen almost like an act of desperation on the part of Netscape as a last ditch effort to combat the threat of efforts of Microsoft to dominate the Internet browser market.
Even as I use this word processing program (Microsoft Word) to type this essay I do not have to worry about spelling “Microsoft” correctly. The auto spell checker underlines in red any misspelling of “Microsoft” to ensure that I spell its maker’s name correctly. I wonder if this program had any sentience, would it seek to destroy my essay which criticizes its maker, or would it just shut down completely and prevent me from typing any further? Fortunately, I do have the original word processing program which I can always load into the computer again. I also have the option of using another word processing program besides that of Microsoft’s (even though there is a dearth of non-Microsoft word processing programs), such as Lotus Wordperfect. I could also switch my operating system over to IBM’s OS2, which shares only a small fraction of all the computer operating systems in the world. Microsoft holds upwards of an amazing 90% or more of the computer operating system market in the entire world. This is a remarkable feat considering the vast market of computers and the incredible diversity of languages used throughout the world. I could even be radical and abandon the Windows operating system and switch my IBM computer over to an Apple Macintosh, but alas, even there, Microsoft has already encroached upon its only remaining rival. Having already written software programs for the Macintosh, Microsoft has tightened its noose further around its competition by investing heavily into a troubled Apple Computer company. This almost ensures that Microsoft will gain a strong foothold in the last of its major competitors. When this news of Microsoft’s investment into Apple Computers was announced at an Apple Computer user convention, the audience met the news with boos and outbursts of dismay. These protesters may share a common view that Microsoft is a threat to diversity and competition in the computer industry.
In looking at the Microsoft corporation I am reminded of a cybernetic nemesis in the science fiction series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. This foe of all sentient life was named “The Borg”, and in first encountering a new species which it almost always assimilates into its “collective” they say, “We are the Borg. Surrender to us. Resistance is futile!” A parody of this statement I have seen on the Internet to persuade people to join the small resistance group of Apple Macintosh users against Microsoft and IBM desktop type computers is “Resistance is fruitful, use a Macintosh!”
Capitalism and a market economy stress that competition is good for business and consumers. The proponents of monopolies stress that monopolies are efficient and provide the best use of resources instead of wasting them on competition. These same reasons were espoused by the “Rober Barrons” of the past who were seen as evils of their time. Upton Sinclair even wrote a novel about them entitled The Octopus to depict the menacing arms of the monopolies that sought to destroy competition (Nader and Love 2). The anti-trust and anti-monopolistic laws that resulted from that era served to protect capitalism and the free market economy. Monopolies represent the antithesis of the ideals found within a capitalistic and free market economy. The economic destructiveness of monopolies in our own times can be seen through the recent fall of the communist regimes who practiced government controlled monopolies that led to the economic turmoil and decline in their countries. It would be a wise lesson to take heed of the lessons of past and present monopolies to stop the takeover of access to the Internet which Microsoft is seeking to do. It seeks to achieve this control by bundling its browser into its operating system which already controls 90% of the worlds’ market.
The ubiquitous nature of Microsoft in our everyday computing lives is seemingly subconscious, yet when we realize the broad influence of this computer giant upon our life it becomes a frightening possibility. Thoughts of Orwellian “Big Brother” comes to mind at times. The question of whether Microsoft has a monopoly over the computer industry is a resounding yes. It is a near virtual monopoly in the computer industry. The question thus becomes not whether Microsoft is a monopoly, but why it has taken so long for the government to intercede into the affairs that would regulate this ever growing computer giant. It would be wise to follow the lesson of Jack who cut down the beanstalk in a fable that has all too real applications in our modern-day computerized world.