Tilting at Windows

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 4 June 1998

No matter how much we Americans might love to hate Bill Gates, we can’t help but have mixed feelings about the US Justice Department and the two dozen or so states suing Microsoft for violating anti-trust laws.

Fresh from their unsatisfying victory-with-no-spoils over the tobacco industry last season, our attorneys-general are anxious to take down another perceived enemy of the people, as publicly as possible. On TV and to the press, they explain how Microsoft’s ‘anti-competitive’ practices must be curbed in order to promote innovation and preserve consumer choice. But by the logic of the marketplace - the only logic left in American politics and, arguably, our value system - government intervention is itself anti-competitive. When winners and losers are judged only by their profits, the ends justify any means. Although Microsoft uses every weapon in its arsenal to win the ‘browser war’, this is all in the spirit of competition. Playing a bit dirty - or a bit fast, loose, or close to the chest with standards and compatibility - is merely the kind of ‘extreme’ competition we can expect from an industry founded by hackers and accelerating at this many megahertz per second. Predatory business practices are not anti-competitive; they are hyper-competitive. Or so the thinking goes, at this, the great bull market’s endgame.

If the many well-meaning but ill-informed justice departments are going to stand a chance of winning this case - either in court or in the arguably more significant court of public opinion - they are going to have to abandon their posture of protecting a competitive business environment, and instead demonstrate how their lawsuit will make for a better digital future. They must learn to express the rationale underlying their attack on the company that - currently, anyway - promises to put the most toys on our desktops, the fastest.

Instead, America’s prosecutors have allowed themselves to be drawn into a phantom battle - most probably thanks to the lobbying and counsel they receive from ‘industry experts’ (read: Silicon Valley CEOs who have already fallen to Microsoft). While they think they are preventing Microsoft from leveraging its Windows monopolies into other areas, they are merely fighting for concessions that, very soon, won’t matter to Bill Gates at all.

First, they want to force Microsoft to let computer makers modify the Windows desktop by adding competitors’ software icons to the opening screen. This way, the buyer of a new computer will have a choice between using Microsoft’s or Netscape’s Web browser, for example. Second, and more far-reaching, they want to curb Microsoft’s ability to ‘tie’ software applications to its operating system, making it illegal for Microsoft to demand that computer makers include Internet Explorer or any other software application as a condition for obtaining a licence to distribute Windows.

But what happens when there’s no such thing as software? Thanks to competitors like Netscape - which was threatening to expand its own programs into entire operating systems - Microsoft got the bright idea of expanding its operating system into programs. In the Windows future, users will no longer ‘open’ programs from a desktop. You won’t use a separate browser program to view the Internet, word processor to edit a document, or spreadsheet application to calculate your profits. The same system window will be capable of doing all of these things. Only the menu bar or ‘ruler’ might change as you perform different tasks.

In other words, your operating system will not be the platform from which you ‘launch’ software; it will be the software. Instead of buying new programs, you will add functionality to the system, much in the way you now download ‘plug-ins’ for your Web browser.

Microsoft has nothing to fear from losing its current battle with justice. The Internet Explorer icon is merely a placeholder for the program’s impending absorption by Windows - a way to keep Netscape from setting its own Web-browsing standards while Microsoft steadily integrates the Internet into its overall system.

Microsoft is expanding on numerous other frontiers simultaneously. New cable television services and palmtop computing devices are all adopting versions of Windows. The number of Web servers and back offices based on Windows is also growing. Microsoft is awaiting the moment when these different computing worlds - consumer, business, television, palmtop - begin to touch one another. Then, Windows will be the system that runs our world.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will use its ubiquitous presence in one area to extend into another.

Windows is only the most logical choice for cable TV operating systems because the PCs that might someday be integrated with cable are already on Windows. Similarly, Windows Web servers have the ability to activate bells and whistles on Windows users’ computers that other servers don’t.

Microsoft is simply hoping that the current lawsuit takes long enough for the synergy between its different frontiers to take effect. Once this happens, it has won the war - even if it had to lose a few meaningless battles along the way.

For the Justice Department to head off such a future seems unlikely and, perhaps, misguided. Worse, it just makes government into the enemy of every kid shouting, ‘I want my digital MTV!’ Instead, we might best treat Microsoft, and any other operating system developer in the future, the way we did cable television providers in the 1970s. If they want to become the architects of our nation’s - and perhaps the world’s - information infrastructure, they will have to demonstrate a willingness to promote the public interest. For cable TV, this meant public access programming and reasonable rates. For systems architects, it could mean online public libraries, free terminals, open standards, and educational provisions.

What will serve the public interest is not greater competition between information architects but greater co-operation. They must be made accountable to one another and to the people they serve. Protecting the marketplace will not prove nearly as important - or popular - as promoting the values that competition doesn’t address. And that’s what government is here for in the first place.

Douglas Rushkoff Douglas Rushkoff can be reached at www. levity. com/rushkoff