The view from the sidelines - The United States v Microsoft

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The Independent Online
I SUPPOSE I should start with a confession. I hate computers. I earn my living sitting in front on one, pecking away at the keyboard as I am doing now, and we have the Internet at home. But the actual technology seems to me to be at best boring, and at worst profoundly frustrating. Computers take ages to fire up, periodically crash, and use cute California-speak like "cookies" and "browsers" to describe things you don't understand, or slither into spoof legalise as in "this program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down".

So it was with a certain weariness that I read about the anti-trust suit filed this week by the US Justice Department against Microsoft. Who cares which browser to use on the Internet? Surely when someone comes along with a better browser (or whatever) we will go and buy it. Boring, boring, boring.

But it isn't. It suddenly dawned on me that one of the main reasons why computers are so infuriating is that there isn't enough competition in the way they work. You can buy them from any number of manufacturers, all of whom try desperately to pretend that their products are different, but once you switch the things on they all behave in the same way. More than 90 per cent use Microsoft's Windows.

To say that is not to rail against Windows, as such. I'm sure it is perfectly OK at what it does, and the principal alternative, the Apple system, is irritating too. But it is a strange irony that the personal computer, the great individualistic, liberating force of the 1990s, should be so conformist in the way it works. Switch the thing on and instead of getting, say, a picture of a loved one or the FT share prices or even the maker's name, you get that Windows logo.

And that, ultimately, is why the suit against Microsoft matters. Computers have to be able to talk to each other, so there is a great convenience in their having a common language. Just as the business world has standardised on English, the computer world has standardised, first, on MS-Dos and then on Windows. But English is not owned by anyone, whereas Windows is, and the charge against Microsoft is that it uses its dominance of the computer language to force, or at least nudge, people to use its other products.

The specific issue the US Justice Department is examining is whether Windows leads people towards using Microsoft's Explorer browser for the Internet, instead of the main and earlier alternative, Netscape's Navigator. (For the uninitiated, you need a browser as a sort of entry point into the Internet - the front desk of the electronic library, where you register before you head off to look round the bookshelves.)

But the specific issue seems to me to be less important than the general principle, which is whether dominance on one product should be used to push buyers towards another, maybe creating dominance there too. I happen to use Navigator but I have no idea whether it is better or worse than Explorer. But I do know that markets work better if there are two, three or more producers of goods or services than if there is only one. Our own history of nationalised industries and privatised monopolies bears this out.

Nationalised industries were a lost cause, a form of commercial organisation which simply did not work; but we are still learning how to regulate privatised monopolies, and I suppose the US anti-trust action should be seen as a first step towards a form of regulation for information technology monopolies. Microsoft has a global monopoly rather than just a US one, but the rest of us have to rely on the US anti-trust action to act in the interest of consumers outside the US.

Relying on the US courts to act in the best interest of global consumers is a pretty unsatisfactory state of affairs. The rest of the world has to cope not just with a Microsoft monopoly, but with a United States monopoly too. This is not so bad for other Anglophone nations, but the non-English- speaking world sees itself sidelined. What is really needed is not just a counterbalance to Microsoft but a counterbalance to the US dominance of the personal computer world. How can such a counterbalance be created?

I can see two ways in which it might. The first is that somewhere out there, there exists a series of technical advances that will reduce the power of the single operating system for computers. Computers will become capable of operating simultaneously on lots of different systems. How precisely this will happen I don't know: as I said, I hate computers.

But it is not hard to see conceptually how it might develop. Take a computer which only speaks one language. Now download on to it, not only a program in another language but also a dictionary that enables it to decipher the new programme. (For people who are interested in this, Java mini-programs are, I suppose, a prototype of this sort of development.)

The second way in which a counterbalance might develop will be when Microsoft implodes. It is a company that consists only of the intellectual capital of the people it employs, plus some licences. The glue that holds all this together is the personality of one man, Bill Gates. When he goes, gets bored, comes off the boil, wants to spend more time with his family or whatever, the company will fall apart. Companies where the capital is intellectual are much more fragile than companies that own physical capital.

So see the US Justice Department's action as a temporary patch, a necessary attempt to regulate a monopoly. But remember that all monopolies die in the end. Somewhere out there - perhaps in some university lab, more likely in some garage or garden shed - there are people with the ideas which will chip away at the world of Windows. Nothing is forever.