If it's got a plug on the end of it, Bill Gates wants a piece of it

Who can stop microsoft?
"Microsoft may bid for BT," said the morning papers yesterday. The story hummed around the stock exchanges for hours. It looked as though Bill Gates - you know, the other Bill, the unpopular one who also lives in Washington, not the district of Columbia but the state - might become the man on the end of the phone. It wasn't true, as it turned out, but it was frightening for a few hours.

After all, nobody outside the computer industry cares very much if Netscape - a bunch of programmers who wear their baseball caps backwards, do their work and order pizzas at 3am, and live in Silicon Valley - gets rolled over by Bill Gates's behemoth, do they? And nobody really minds if countless smaller software rivals find they either do things Microsoft's way or don't do them at all. That's the way of the market, people say.

But suggest that Bill Gates might own BT, and you change the game. If you picked up the phone, would the dialling tone still be saying "Brrrrr"? Or would it be "Billlllllllllllllll"? Or just "Moneyyyyyyyy"? And, cynics might ask, would it crash all the time?

The rumour wasn't true, but it helps put the raging battles in the computer world into worrying perspective. If we only perceive computers as things we use at work, and occasionally at home, to do particular tasks, it doesn't seem very threatening if Microsoft takes them over. Word processing? Who cares if the program is by Microsoft or Nichemarket Software?

But when you start thinking about the way telecommunications changes business, and you think about the way that Microsoft uses its size to tilt any playing field it gets on to in its favour, then you realise that if Microsoft did swallow BT, that tuna steak really could end up dearer. Did the computers that supermarkets use to work out their orders use Microsoft software, which crashed and sent the lorry with the fish to Llandudno instead of London? So sorry.

Lest this sound too fanciful (as the rumours were), let me quote Gates earlier this week, when he admitted his company had had talks with telecomms companies: "All we need to do is take Windows [software] and extend it so that it can be the base for telephony ... and find out what the communications industry needs in order for Windows NT [another Microsoft operating system] to be a key building block."

Note that phrase, "key building block". That's where Gates wants to be - holding everything up, controlling the toll bridge for software. This is a company which wants so much to control your life that later this year it is introducing a chip-powered children's toy, Interactive Barney, which "talks and sings along with your video and PC". (Of course, if your home computer isn't running Windows, your purchase will be in vain.)

Would-be rivals will always be behind the game because Microsoft, being a single company, always has the commercial edge of knowing what it is planning next. That's the power of monopoly, as any Monopoly player learns: when you own all the squares, you don't mind who lands on them, because they always end up paying you.

The idea of competition being shut out has led many Americans - usually so ready to applaud success - to oppose the idea that Microsoft might spread its tentacles any further. Some have developed a visceral hatred for Gates, which can't have come from a few annoying computer crashes. While the US Department of Justice sort-of "won" part if its anti-trust lawsuit yesterday - with Microsoft agreeing not to twist PC manufacturers' arms to make them install its Internet browser - the wider game is not over.

"In the real world, Microsoft has already succeeded in nailing Netscape," said Gary Arlen, a technology analyst. "The damage may have already been done. Microsoft may have already accomplished its goal in defeating its competitors."

So people are asking: since the Department of Justice has signally failed to close the Gates, is there some computing innovation on the way that will have the same effect?

Perhaps. While the computer industry may be relatively young, we have been here before. IBM used to be the one constantly fighting the US Department of Justice, forever signing anti-trust "consent decrees". IBM dominated. Then, in 1982, the PC came along. (Ironically, it was IBM that moved the PC from the hobbyist's garage and on to the corporate desktop.) IBM thought hardware would be the key; it turned out that was easy to make - software is the really valuable stuff. Microsoft won.

Now, some people are tempted to think that a programming language called "Java" could be the undoing of Microsoft, could turn back the Microsoft tide and Bill Gates's wish to have his software run on every computer, everywhere.

Unfortunately, if Java is the answer, then the question must be a pretty silly one. Java is a computer programming language - like Cobol, Basic, Fortran, Pascal, Lisp. More prosaically, Web surfers will know it as "that thing on Web sites which crashes your computer".

Java doesn't try to replace Windows, or any operating system. It just lets computers connected over a network run the same programs, no matter what the chips or operating systems inside them are. It's a way of doing things in spread-out systems.

Interestingly, Microsoft has tried to co-opt it and create its own "standard" Java, which of course only does things on Microsoft-based machines. Perhaps Gates does see it as a threat. Certainly Larry Ellison, head of the enormous database company Oracle, has touted Java and an idea called the "network computer" (essentially a PC, but without a hard disc) as the way to strangle Microsoft. It's not going to happen, because even if your TV metamorphoses into a computer it will still need an operating system underneath - and Microsoft will determinedly wedge itself in.

While it's tempting to hope, Micawber-like, that "something will turn up" that will rebuff Gates, it's likely to be something as lateral, as unobvious, as the PC was. At the time, that was thought to be another string in IBM's all-embracing bow, another building block. It turned out to be the thread that unravelled its power. Perhaps something is coming; but in the meantime, people will be cheering the Department of Justice on and jeering every time Bill Gates whines, "But we only want to compete!"