The Irony of U.S. v. Microsoft
This essay was written and published by Freedom PC Inc. 10/98.
The United States Government's anti-trust lawsuit against the Microsoft Corporation alleges that Microsoft has unfairly attempted to extend its monopoly in computer operating systems.  Regardless of one's opinion of the merits of the government's action, there is clearly a safer and surer path to the end the government seeks.

The Federal Government, together with the twenty states who have joined in the current anti-trust suit, should require their own employees, and all contractors accepting federal and state funding, to perform all federal and state funded work on computers running non-proprietary, open source operating systems.  To do so would be well within the discretion of the government.  It would also achieve the end sought by the suit in far less intrusive manner than any remedy which might be fashioned by the courts.  Finally, independent of the current antitrust controversy, the adoption of open source software by the government would save billions of taxpayer dollars while strengthening the Nation's national security.

History demonstrates that the pace of technological change is far too rapid for any remedy the court may fashion in the current litigation to be effective.  Regardless of the outcome, by the time the appeals have ended, Microsoft's dominance in the operating system market will have been extended into areas far beyond the web browser market.  What is needed is a solution which could be rapidly implemented and would deliver a decisive and immediate leveling of the playing field.  It is clear that the web browser market is only a small portion of the global economy which Microsoft intends to dominate. As Microsoft's forays into diverse businesses such as consumer electronics, media, auto sales, home sales, communications, investment services, and classified advertising make plain, there appear to be few areas of the economy which Microsoft does not intend to dominate.  It is equally clear that Microsoft intends to use its control of its proprietary technologies in operating systems and web authoring tools to forge its way into these diverse areas of commerce.  The growth of the internet and internet-based enterprises has given Microsoft a clear competitive advantage in each of these areas.  Microsoft's track record of eliminating competitors in virtually every market Microsoft has entered where the advantages of its proprietary operating system monopoly are relevant, combined with the migration of large portions of the global economy to the internet, provide a daunting, if not chilling, prospect.

The government's filings to the court are telling. In the plaintiffs' joint response to Microsoft's motion for summary judgment and reply in support of motions for preliminary injunction, the government states:

Microsoft enjoys the most important and perhaps the most durable monopoly in the economy today. Microsoft has been the dominant supplier of personal computer desktop operating systems for more than 15 years, with market shares (depending on how they are measured) ranging from 80 percent to 95 percent. PC manufacturers have, and recognize they have, no realistic alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating systems.  Microsoft prices its Windows operating systems virtually without regard for the prices of other operating systems.  Microsoft's monopoly power is illustrated by its ability to secure agreements from competitors and potential competitors (including companies as powerful as Intel) to reduce or eliminate their competition with Microsoft.

Successful entry or expansion of new operating systems competitors has proven impossible, in significant part because of the applications programming barrier to entry. Computer users want PCs that will run the widest range, and largest number, of programs. Because of Microsoft's market share and sustained dominance, many more PC applications have been developed for its operating systems than for those of any other manufacturer. Windows' high market share begets more applications, which in turn preserve and increase its high market share, which in turn begets still more applications, and so on. Unless and until the success of a particular operating system comes to depend less on the number of applications written specifically for it and more on the merits of that operating system, Microsoft's power is likely to remain self perpetuating.

While the government's arguments are persuasive, they contain a concession the government should be unwilling to make.  The government has apparently concluded that Microsoft's monopoly in operating systems is an inalterable fact which cannot be changed.  The government should be unwilling to reach this conclusion.  It is untrue, and it is both the government's responsibility and within the government's power to end Microsoft's monopoly.  In fact, the government could accomplish this objective in a straightforward manner, free of the contentious nature and delays associated with litigation in the Federal Courts.  Perhaps most importantly, regardless of the merits of the anti-trust suit, it would save taxpayer money and enhance national security for the government to move to open source systems.

In light of the now pending litigation, it is a considerable irony that the taxpayers, by funding the government and those operating with federal funding, have contributed enormously to the creation of Microsoft's monopoly.  At the same time, the government is perhaps the only single entity large enough to have the dramatic and immediate effect of ending the monopoly simply by switching to another operating system.  By the government's own reasoning, such a requirement would instantaneously create a sufficiently large and diverse user base to attract the necessary application development to forever end Microsoft's operating system monopoly.  When one considers the full impact of every institution which is funded by the taxpayers switching to open source systems, it is clear that Microsoft's monopoly would end.  Were the computer systems of every federal agency, U.S. university, branch of the military, defense and civilian contractor converted to a common open source operating system, it is clear that the sheer number and diversity of those systems alone would be sufficient to insure that  virtually every software application ever written would be released for that operating system.  The secondary effect would then be a competitive market for software where no one company owned the platform.

Until very recently, the suggestion that the government mandate the use of an alternative operating system would have proven impossible, prohibitively expensive, or would not have provided the benefit of ending the monopoly in operating systems.  Developing an operating system is a complicated, time consuming, and typically enormously expensive, undertaking.  Historically the only operating systems in existence were very expensive creations, and the proprietary intellectual property of individuals and companies seeking to profit from their creation.  As such, to displace Microsoft's operating systems with another proprietary system would only trade one monopolist for another.  Also, operating systems are typically written to operate in specific computer architectures.  Thus, even if the government were inclined to trade Microsoft's monopoly for another, in most cases such a policy would require not only the replacement of software, but also the enormous expense of changing hardware.

The only practical replacement for Microsoft's operating system software would thus need to be a non-proprietary operating system which is at least as good as, and preferably better, than the multi-billion dollar operating systems sold by Microsoft.  Such a system would require hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lines of computer code.  To insure an even playing field and entice those who might write computer applications for the operating system and the government, the source code for such system would have to have been made be freely available, and placed in the public domain by its creators.  To make the transition fiscally possible, the operating system would have to be compatible with the installed hardware upon which Microsoft and other operating systems run, and inexpensive or free for the millions of government computer users currently running Microsoft and other operating systems. Finally, without any profit seeking enterprise actively marketing it, the operating system would need to have gained enough support in the technical community to have the applications software necessary for the government's critical missions written for it.  Short of having the government deliberately and directly fund the creation of such an operating system, it is difficult to imagine how it could ever come into existence.  Fortunately, perhaps through some form of divine intervention, but clearly with no involvement of the Justice Department, it has.

According to Forbes magazine, the open source Linux operating system system has over seven million users.  Major computer companies, including IBM, Oracle, Corel and Netscape have ported their applications software to run on LinuxLinux is free and it is far more stable than Windows.  Those who use it are not continually plagued with the inefficiencies and re-work caused when the Windows operating system crashes.  These two facts alone would make the switch to Linux cost effective.  Linux is open source.  Anyone with access to the internet can read the source code.  This feature means that the government would not be beholden to a multi-national private company for its computer systems, as is currently the case with Microsoft. Linux is compatible with the hardware already in place.  It was originally written to run on the same Intel X86 platform which runs Windows.  Versions have also been written to work on virtually every other microprocessor architecture.  It can be installed to run right along side Windows, as well any other operating system used by the government, greatly easing the transition.  It was developed as a peer reviewed, collaborative effort of professional software programmers and university computer scientists.  Since there was  no government involvement in the creation of Linux, there is no threat of the government dictating technical standards for the industry.

The government has used the procurement function to effect a wide range of societal and security objectives.  These include preferences for Vietnam era veterans, preferences for U.S. made products, affirmative action programs, mandatory drug testing, and specifying certain producers for items such as jewel bearings which effect the national security.  Since the government is actively suing Microsoft, is it really a stretch to suggest that the government use the procurement function to achieve its objectives here as well?

In the government's own words, Microsoft enjoys "the most important and perhaps the most durable monopoly in the economy today."  Microsoft has proven time and again that it is eager to leverage that monopoly to its advantage in virtually every business where it is relevant.  In many cases, state and federal prosecutors, and the federal courts, have concluded that Microsoft is willing to violate the law in so doing.  With the largest market capitalization of any corporate enterprise in history, it is clear that Microsoft will continue to have the means, the inclination, and the opportunity to continue in its ways.  Thus, it would appear that continued government intervention into Microsoft's business operations is inevitable.  Perhaps Microsoft is destined to be regulated like a public utility.  Alternatively, Microsoft's operating system business may ultimately be split from its other businesses in a manner similar to the breakup of AT&T.  Some have suggested Microsoft's operating system could be condemned and made publicly available through the power of eminent domain.  However, none of these alternatives are possible without lengthy, contentious and expensive litigation, during which time Microsoft promises to continue to operate according to the status quo.  The only legal, immediate action available to the government, which has any promise whatsoever to fracture Microsoft's monopoly in the immediate and critical future, and which does not provide preferential treatment of any individuals or entities, is the immediate adoption of open source operating systems throughout every organization currently receiving government support.

Copyright 1998 FreedomPC

Powered by Freedomtm