Leading Article: Even Gates must play by the rules

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LATER THIS year Bill Gates's Microsoft will unveil Windows 98, the latest, fastest and (it hopes) most "user-friendly" interface between computer users and their machines. However exaggerated some of the claims made for the role computers play in our economy and society, there is no doubt this launch will once again be a great event and will change the way millions of people around the world function on a daily basis. But if Microsoft sticks with its current plans, it will be selling a product which, American courts argue, constitutes a restraint on competition. And that is something even Bill Gates, hero of cyberspace, should not be allowed to do.

The gist of a judgment last December by a federal judge was that the inclusion in the product of Microsoft's own "browser" for the Internet is seriously harming the capacity of other software companies to compete. To defend his company and its strategy Mr Gates appeared yesterday before the US Senate's Judiciary Committee. This committee is not the most distinguished operation, and not just because it is Republican-dominated. But it is still a legitimate forum in which to hold Microsoft to account, and perhaps it may also to act as a proxy for all those non-American computer-users who will be affected by decisions made in the US.

Bill Gates excites admiration across the globe. He is, in the same way as Richard Branson here, one of capitalism's most acceptable faces. Many young people swim happily in information technology culture, and to them Bill Gates has become a cult figure. That he appears to be liberal-minded and progressive in instinct helps endear him more. Yet no conclusive evidence has been produced which says that the market for software, for graphical interfaces or for accessing the Web has floated free of those norms which decree, as they always have, that the consumer's best friend is the fullest competition between keen rivals. Has the historical rule which says that sooner or later even the most benign monopolists start to abuse their power really been suspended? Would Microsoft cease to invest and innovate if computer buyers could choose other operating systems? Of course not. The question thus has to be whether Microsoft's ability to "bundle" a browser with Windows does inhibit competition.

The expert evidence is that it does. The expert evidence also suggests that it would not be so difficult, nor so onerous on Microsoft, if computer users were able to buy Windows and Microsoft's Net products only as separate entities. There is no reason why such an ordinance need prevent product development or technological advance. Bill Gates is an international treasure, but that has not stopped him sulking and throwing fits of pique. Ultimately, however much of a visionary he may be, he is wedded to no interest other than his own. His magnificent achievement in building up Microsoft must not now become an excuse for relieving him of the responsibility of playing by market rules.

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