TalkBack Central: Competing with Windows

COMMENTARY -- Microsoft has a right to produce and sell Windows, but the rest of us have a right to start our own company and compete with Windows. A few years ago our government decided to take Microsoft to court over this issue, and the court battle is going on.

COMMENTARY -- Microsoft has a right to produce and sell Windows, but the rest of us have a right to start our own company and compete with Windows.

A few years ago our government decided to take Microsoft to court over this issue, and the court battle is going on. Rather than discuss the legal case, which I consider merely a battle between high priced lawyers over legal technicalities, I will explain in non-legal terms why I think Microsoft qualifies as a monopoly, and why Windows should be released to world so that everybody is free to start a business as a Windows developer.

There are several operating systems competing with Windows right now (e.g., Solaris, Linux, FreeBSD, and QNX). This could give you the impression that there is plenty of competition for Windows. However, none of these systems have more than a tiny fraction of the desktop market.

The best proof that Microsoft is a monopoly is that FreeBSD, Linux, and other systems are provided to the public at no cost with little effect on the sale of Windows.

Before I explain this, imagine Mercedes-Benz offering their cars for free. They finance this free car operation through donations, volunteer workers, sales of T-shirts, and the servicing of cars. Certainly you can understand that other car companies would be devastated.

Next consider the issue of "product dumping." When a company offers their products at a price that is below the cost of manufacturing it, they are accused of a crime. Using a car analogy, imagine Mercedes offering their cars for less than the cost of manufacturing them. They subsidize the cost of their cars through donations, volunteer workers, and sales of T-shirts.

Now consider that FreeBSD is a high quality operating system that is offered for free. Some of the FreeBSD people are volunteers who work in their spare time. They also collect donations and sell services. This goes beyond what we call "product dumping."

According to the theory of free enterprise, consumers would get a copy of FreeBSD, software developers would develop applications for FreeBSD, and Microsoft would take the FreeBSD people to court and accuse them of destroying competition. Our courts would rule that the FreeBSD organization must stop giving their products away for free; that they must charge a price that is above their development cost.

Our courts would also rule that the FreeBSD volunteers are "slaves," and the FreeBSD organization would be required to pay them a salary, and pay taxes on those employees.

In order for an organization to use volunteer employees they must follow certain rules, such as not competing with conventional businesses. However, FreeBSD has both volunteer employees and they compete against conventional companies. I suspect that the FreeBSD organization is violating our laws, but Microsoft doesn't care because FreeBSD has almost no effect on the sale of Windows. FreeBSD only affects operating systems for servers, but not enough for anybody to start a court case over it.

The FreeBSD organization could take this one step further and offer to pay us to install FreeBSD on our computer, but even that would have no effect on the sale of Windows. Sure, many of us would take the money and install FreeBSD, but most of us would continue to use and upgrade Windows.

There is no practical way to compete with Windows. One reason is that businesses resist changing their desktop operating system because it causes all files and applications to become useless. Another reason is that most software developers resist making applications and drivers for operating systems that do not have a large market.

Our free enterprise system gives us the freedom to start any business we please and compete with any product. Unfortunately, there are certain products where this concept fails. For example, we cannot have true competition with electricity, nor with public water supplies.

During the 1980's nobody could offer much proof that competition would fail with desktop operating systems because at the time there was lots of competition. But during the 1990's applications became incredibly complex, and the trend is to make applications even smarter and easier (i.e., more complex). Also, businesses have been accumulating data files for decades. Some database files are over a terabyte in size! This has the effect of making businesses reluctant to switch from Windows.

The applications and data files are what make Windows valuable. It is the lack of applications and data that makes other operating systems so unattractive.

I say it is time we admit that competition cannot work properly with desktop operating systems. Rather than try to compete against Windows, we should have competition to produce the best version of Windows.

Our government is considering breaking Microsoft into two corporations, one that develops Windows and one that develops applications. However this does nothing to provide competition with Windows. Even if an independent company were making Windows, FreeBSD, QNX, Solaris, and other operating systems would continue to find that nobody wants their systems.

A better solution is to release the Windows source code. This would allow any company to produce their own version of Windows that is compatible with the Windows we already use.

Consumers would find companies competing to improve the stability of Windows, the Plug and Play features, and the ease of installation. Some companies may specialize in a version of home use, while others may concentrate on versions for businesses, and still others may create a version for software developers that facilitate the development of software.

As long as each company designs their version to use the same drivers and run the same software, consumers would be able to switch between the different versions of Windows without disrupting their business or their lives.

Computer technology will change over time, and there will be a point at which it would be better to make changes in Windows that would create some incompatibilities with previous versions. This is where the government would have to provide supervision. It is similar to the situation we find with airlines and television in which the government occasionally must get involved in decisions regarding technology that would create incompatibilities with current systems. Also, the government would have to watch over the Windows' companies to prevent price-fixing and other scams.

Allowing the government to supervise Windows would certainly have its disadvantages. However, we currently allow our government to supervise airlines, water supplies, and numerous other products and services. The California government is doing a terrible job at the moment in regards to regulating electricity, but that doesn't justify paranoia of government.

Many people will argue that it's not fair for the government to take Windows away from Microsoft. This argument also applies to you and me as individuals. Specifically, some people would say the government has no right to take away our property or tell us how to live.

However, we lose our privileges when we violate the rules of our society. If you commit certain crimes, the government will get involved in your life, and possibly seize your property and put you in jail.

If Microsoft has been committing crimes, the government can justify seizing Windows. But this is another, complex topic.

Eric Hufschmid has been sole proprietor for the last 11 years of a tiny company that makes CAD/CAM related software for industries.

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