Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A World the Color of Goose Shit

I originally wrote this in January 1999 on my old Geocities website. I had a section called Opinions and the article below, written about the DoJ vs Microsoft trial, was the last entry I wrote before time and circumstances got in the way. As I re-read this I've come to realize that nothing has really changed. The PC Week article I quoted has since vanished. This link points to another source of Dr. Fisher's quote.

An interesting article from PC Week danced around the real issue of the DOJ vs Microsoft trial. The following is taken from that article.
The government's star economic witness in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial lashed out at the company Thursday, denouncing conduct he said was reminiscent of a "pungent" turn of phrase first coined by French songwriter Jacques Brel.

"They want to color the world the color of goose shit," Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Franklin Fisher said. "If Microsoft forced upon the world a single browser, it would make things simpler. But that's not what competition is about. That's not what choice is about. . . . It's not a competitive world, and it's not one that's ultimately consumer driven."
The root issue isn't choice or competition, even those are important. At the root of this battle is control of the direction of computing. If Microsoft controls it, we'll get advances in computing that Microsoft deems is important, when it suits Microsoft to release them. And only enough information about any given sanctioned advance will be released to suit Microsoft's needs, and no more.

An Issue of Control

Microsoft is into control on many levels, from the operating system to Web content, hosting services to tools; they touch, and attempt to control, every aspect of the computing experience from conception to final end-user experience. It isn't as innocent as a competitive company trying to compete in as many markets as possible. Every decision they make, every market they target, all of Microsoft's on-going efforts are towards a single goal: control.

They deliberately set out to control the computing environment from the very beginning with BASIC. And it was in those early days of computing (circa 1975) that Bill Gates ran into two problems that would dog him throughout his business career to this day - piracy and open source software. Bill Gates was not pleased that the first version of BASIC for the Altair, available on paper tape, was being copied and passed around. He got even more incensed when he saw versions of BASIC (Tiny BASIC) begin to crop up. He expressed his displeasure of the situation in a now-famous open letter published in Dr. Dobbs in 1976. Gates and Microsoft later went on to lock down control of the BASIC market by moving MS BASIC into ROM from the Apple 2 to the original IBM PC, and by using strong-armed marketing tactics to make sure alternate BASICs were not allowed on the machines, such as MS BASIC pushing Apple Integer BASIC out of the Apple 2.

Microsoft repeated its tactics with MS DOS, and later with Windows. Through a combination of economic incentives and carefully worded contracts, Microsoft honed a Trojan economic tactic where-by they sold their operating systems [sic] at a low, attractive price in order to get their software sold with the manufacturer's machines. The key to that kingdom was IBM's selection of MS DOS for the original IBM PC. Once that decision was made, Microsoft wrote a contract giving them rights to sell MS DOS to any other PC manufacturer. With that hole in the Microsoft-IBM contract, Microsoft could advertise MS DOS to any and all comers, and tout the fact that IBM had selected it, so it must be good. The rest, as they say, was history.

The PC manufacturer didn't care because they were worried about making money, and the cost of Microsoft software was a very small fraction of the total cost of manufacturing. The customer didn't care because the PC came bundled with software that they could begin to do something with. Like frogs in a slowly heating pot, no one realized what was happening until it was far too late to do anything about it. Because of it we now live in a computing world where Microsoft has near-total dominance (+90%) over the PC market for operating systems.

In spite of inroads in the past 12 months by Linux on the server side (a 212% increase) and Apple on the workstation side (over 800,000 iMacs were sold from August 1998 through December of the same year, pushing Apple's domestic PC share from 5% to 10%), this won't really change much in the near future.

Even though 52% of managers polled would drop Windows in favor of an alternative, it won't happen because Microsoft controls the source where operating systems are pre-loaded -- the PC manufacturers. Until and unless this grip is broken, any alternative operating system will have a nearly impossible task getting established and offered as an alternative to consumers.

With the foundation locked down, Microsoft controls the OS API, one of the most strategic resources in any computer. Without a clearly defined API you will not write applications, nor can you attempt to create a clone of the OS. We have Linux because the Unix APIs are so well documented and so well studied. MS DOS, and later Windows, did not and still does not have completely open APIs. Microsoft may publish documentation on its APIs, but this is by no means complete, as evidenced by the small cottage industry that sprang up with MS DOS and continues to this day documenting unpublished (undocumented) internal APIs. Undocumented APIs that are used by Microsoft applications, usually providing extended functionality and/or enhanced performance. He who controls the API on top of the dominant operating system can control literally every aspect of the market. And if the APIs become too well known, simply change them via updates to key sections through applications that you also sell. Non-Microsoft applications have a habit of breaking when major Microsoft applications with updated operating system components are installed. Such a tidy little system.

With such a large market, new marketing methods become apparent, such as the constant incremental update. This provides a large, steady revenue stream, capable of controlling competitors either by buying them and their technology, hiring enough people to reproducing their key technology and then incorporating it into Windows, or by subsidizing the ability to sell well below a competitor's direct product or service. Microsoft has done all these things, and more, to control its markets and protect its market dominance.

When Microsoft controls an entire industry the way it controls the personal computer software market, it works to stifle creativity and the cross- pollination of inventive thought. Microsoft believes that it can buy all the creative talent it needs and then protect that investment by driving "open" standards, as witnessed by their involvement in the standards community. Microsoft isn't a member for the benefit of the rest, but to push the Microsoft agenda. A classic example of this is the W3C standards for HTML4, cascading style sheets, and other key technologies for the delivery and presentation of content over the web. Furthermore, as evidenced in the 1998 Halloween documents, Microsoft believes it can control the open source software movement by adding proprietary extensions to open standards, thus thwarting alternatives to Microsoft software technology.

We have always thought that thought control would come from Big Government. We've also been led to believe that the best market is a free market, a market that can police and correct itself. But we now have a situation where an unchecked free market company, Microsoft, has accumulated such wealth and influence that, combined with its innate desire to control everything, represents a direct threat to fundamental computer invention and development.

Unless we move to decisively correct the situation, either through government intervention and/or alternate computer technological development, then we will wind up with a world so colored by Redmond goose shit that we won't know or care what a mess we live in, or that it truly could be better.

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