Web design: The software that we will never see

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The Independent Culture
AFTER MONTHS of waiting, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has taken endless hours of testimony, videotapes and e-mails from the Microsoft antitrust case and distilled them into his finding of facts: what he, as an impartial adjudicator, feels to be the truth (www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/f3800/ msjudgex.htm).

Judge Jackson does not paint a pretty picture of Microsoft. He has few kind words for the Redmond-based software company. Reading the report is like reading an insider's tell-all story of the history of the computer industry for the last six years. It painstakingly details the efforts of one company to force its solutions on to the industry and to disable or destroy any challenging initiatives. The only people surprised by the report's main conclusion - that Microsoft is in fact a monopoly - are members of the public who have been spoon-fed a constant diet of "Microsoft is your friend", Microsoft's most rabid supporters, and executives at Microsoft.

Most members of the Web community have either heard of or experienced Microsoft's "innovative" approach to getting its browser to the top of the heap.

While Microsoft pleads that it must be allowed the "freedom to innovate," it seems bent on denying that same privilege to others. Ironically, Microsoft has even set up a Freedom to Innovate Network (www.microsoft. com/freedomtoinnovate/) to champion its cause.

Yet, if you consider the history of the Web and the promise that browsers had in the mid-Ninties, you will see that Netscape had a very different picture of the future of the Web than the shopping mall mentality that pervades it today. Instead, Netscape was working on initiatives that would have radically altered the way that we interact with computers. Would this have improved the way we use computers? We will never know because Netscape's plans could have potentially endangered the need for the Windows operating system. Microsoft acted decisively to head off this threat and its actions have for ever denied what could have been and stifled true innovation.

Currently, Internet Explorer is the most popular browser being used to access the Web, according to every study available today, and it is poised to repeat a Windows-like dominance in the Web industry. It's chief competitor, Netscape's Navigator, seems for ever mired in "development" and is controlled by a company, AOL, that could care less whether or not it ever emerges.

What this means to people whose job it is to design for the Web is that they will become increasingly dependent on the dictates of one company and loose any voice they had in how this medium is created. If you don't believe me, consider Internet Explorer 5. Although Microsoft promised to adhere to the standards set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (www. w3c.org) - standards that they had a hand in creating - when it became clear in 1998 that Microsoft would dominate the browser market, their next-generation browser was released with significant deficiencies in those standards (www. webstandards.org/ie5.txt). Instead, this new browser promoted as many Microsoft-only solutions as could be crammed into it.

The Web was not meant to be this way, and would have never happened at all had it been created in such a fashion. The Web has always drawn its strength and innovation from co-operation between a variety of sources. Should only one voice win out, it will mean the death of innovation for Web browsers.

But the Microsoft antitrust case is not really about Web browsers, operating systems or programming languages. It's not even about computers or the "right to innovate". What this case really comes down to is the conflict between two completely disparate philosophies of business: might-makes- right versus do-the-right-thing.

Those who believe that might makes right claim that power naturally leads to authority and that Microsoft has every right to do whatever it thinks is best in order to preserve its business because it is so successful. Supporters of this philosophy insist that the only reason Microsoft is being "persecuted" is because of the jealousy of less-successful companies.

To quote Nicholas Provenzo of the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism (www.moraldefense. com) as reported in Wired News (www.wired.com): "The whole case against Microsoft is about the fact that they're just too dang successful."

But the success of one individual or group at the shameless expense of others is seldom a good thing. With great power comes great responsibility and there are limits to what a company, especially one in the powerful position that Microsoft finds itself in, should be allowed to do. Judge Jackson's conclusions are that Microsoft stepped over the line from being merely successful to achieving domination and attempting to dictate all aspects of this powerful medium, causing significant harm to the public.

What is this harm? How can Microsoft's success do harm to you? The harm comes every time your computer crashes and you have no choice but to reboot because Windows is the only operating system that runs your applications. It comes when you choose to use Netscape Navigator but Internet Explorer keeps mysteriously running every time you want to access the Web.

Most important, the harm comes in the loss of software innovations that we will never see, software you will never be able to choose.