Issue #201, December 15, 1999  

Franklinesque Vision Needed For Microsoft

By Stephen Lawton

     Can it be possible that we might know the outcome of the Microsoft monopoly trial before we know who the next president will be? Amazing. In the past, big antitrust suits dragged on for years. The Microsoft suit, which began and ended this year, looks like it might find some level of closure before the 2000 elections. Imagine Microsoft getting a product of its own out that fast. Unheard of.
          The appointment of federal judge Richard A. Posner as mediator is good news, particularly since Microsoft seems to be modifying its position and now seems to be in a mood to talk to the Justice Department. No big surprise, since it received a serious blow when it was found to be acting as a monopoly recently. Cooperating with Justice might be Microsoft's only chance to remain whole.
          Judge Posner is an interesting choice - a free marketeer who seems to understand big companies. Posner is said to be affiliated with what's called the Chicago School of economic legalism, which holds the belief that big isn't necessarily bad and that real monopolistic behavior is rare. He also believes the market is better than the government at policing economic matters.
          Microsoft owns the operating system, word processor and spreadsheet markets. Its other offerings, including its database, presentation graphics, e-mail client, back office applications, and yes, even its browser, have significant competitors. As long as a company has viable competitors, the market will dictate what users choose. And if lots of users choose Microsoft products, who are we to say: "No, you can't - you need to select a non-Microsoft product"?
          Standardization is a good thing. I like to know that my software is compatible with my writers' software. Choice is good, too, but that doesn't mean we can't choose Microsoft. There is a reason Lotus Ami Pro (later Word Pro) and Corel WordPerfect fell from grace: Users chose not to use them.
          The last time I wrote about Microsoft, a reader accused me of being a "free marketeer." I strongly believe that the less government we have mucking up the technology works, the better. That's also why I strongly oppose UCITA - the Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act. I'm not sure I'm all that pleased with H.R. 3028, an anti-cybersquatting bill that could turn into a legal muddle. It seems every time I check, several more half-baked ideas have worked their way through Congress, sponsored by less-than-technology-savvy legislators with a hometown bone to pick.
          I just wonder what the great American sage Benjamin Franklin would say about Microsoft. Maybe he already said it: "Drive thy business, or it will drive thee." He also said, "Energy and persistence conquer all things."
          I think he would say the market, and the innovations therein, should drive technology rather than edicts from Washington. If he said that, I'd have to agree.

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