MS verdict is good for users

Monopoly case reveals how innovation was stifled

Monopoly case reveals how innovation was stifled

As the dust settles on the Microsoft verdict the implications for corporate IT users are clear - monopolies are bad for technology. Judge Jackson's ruling showed that the technological aspect of Microsoft's "predatory behaviour" was far more effective than the attempt to use pure market muscle.

The case focused on the "browser war" between Netscape and Internet Explorer. So what? you might ask. Both are now effectively free and 90% similar anyway.

But it was never about browsers. It was always - and is still - about operating systems.

To defend Windows, Microsoft had to maintain not just the product but the whole idea of a proprietory operating system. To do that it had to stop the emergence of cross-platform interfaces - in this case, Netscape and Java. And the judge found Microsoft did it through a combination of technology tweaks and market muscle.

In the battle to defend Internet Explorer, the Judge found, Microsoft itself introduced glitches and instability into Windows. With Java, it simply created a Windows implentation that was not cross-platform and then induced developers "by subterfuge and barter" to use that language.

What this means is that - for all its protestations about "the right to innovate" - Microsoft was hampering innovation.

Not just innovation by Sun and AOL, but also your innovation. How many time-wasting Windows reboots over the last five years were the result of monopoly-inspired tinkering with the desktop and the boot sequence?

And it is still being tempted down the monopoly route - bundling its own video player with new PCs to stave off an open source rival, and adding proprietory extensions to the Kerberos security system.

Many IT directors like Microsoft because, while sometimes clunky, it provides a top-to-bottom solution, a uniform skills pool and virtual open standards.

But the judgment shows how much we have had to trade for these benefits. It is not the fact of being tied in to proprietory software that rankles - it is Microsoft's determination to kill innovation in the cross-platform alternatives to Windows.

That may have been good enough for the file and print era, and for the era of closed back-office systems. But it is not good enough for the era of pervasive computing.

That said, an enforced breakup of Microsoft would be bad for IT users.

A horizontal split would only work if it could force the operating system and applications companies to adopt an open source approach. If Microsoft can be forced to embrace open source short of that, there would be little point in breakup - and much to lose from it.

Ultimately, Microsoft's "right to innovate" conflicts not just with its competitors' rights to do likewise. If defended through monopoly, it conflicts with the corporate rights to fair trading of its customers.

An American court has upheld those rights for users across the globe. Whatever the final remedies the court enforces, the ruling itself is good news for IT users everywhere.

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