The EC and Microsoft frustration

The EC is still complaining about Microsoft. This time, Neelie Kroes laments Microsoft's growing workgroup server market share, which now stands at 75% versus 35% in 1999.

The EC is still complaining about Microsoft. This time, Neelie Kroes laments Microsoft's growing workgroup server market share, which now stands at 75% versus 35% in 1999. This, it would appear, she blames on Microsoft's "secret protocols," as that is the only possible reason Microsoft has for beating nominally lower-cost competitors in a world where 80% or more of the typical computer user's day is spent within web browsers, and hence, uses protocols over which Microsoft has little control.

Okay, I'm skeptical, but unless you haven't been paying attention, I've long been skeptical of the motivations of government antitrust regulators.

The root cause of this problem is the mistaken notion that consumers are somehow choosing the wrong solution because Microsoft has gamed the system to such an extent that they can't see what bureaucrats sitting on clouds (and thus "outside" the market) "know" to be the right thing for consumers to buy. The tools of this manipulation are Microsoft's "secret protocols," or in other words, the technology which enables various products in Microsoft's web of software technology to interoperate seamlessly. Such secret protocols lie at the heart of what Microsoft has been obligated to document as part of the EC's antitrust ruling against the company.

The current hang-up, based on previous complaints from Ms. Kroes, is that Microsoft shouldn't be allowed to charge a fee for some of the protocols newly documented as part of the EC ruling as they don't warrant protection according to the normal standards of public information (big surprise there; I don't think the recipe for Coke or KFC's chicken recipe would warrant protection, either, which is why they are TRADE SECRETS).

As I noted in a previous blog, this is clearly expropriation of Microsoft property, and might even run afoul of the Court of First Instance. On the other hand, this is a principle that simply isn't worth fighting over. How much value did Microsoft ever derive from keeping these protocols private?

As I implied at the start of this blog, there are a large number of reasons Microsoft solutions get chosen over the alternatives, including better development tools, huge stacks of easy to access documentation, plus that web of compliant products Microsoft grows with every foray into a new area of the software market. The fact that others might be able to make their products marginally more compatible (and not have to pay for the information that enables them to do that) doesn't mean they will, nor that consumers will ignore the other advantages of Microsoft products just because there is an incremental improvement in the compatibility of that product with Microsoft's ecosystem.

Where there is no room to compromise is MIcrosoft's right to include whatever they darn well please in any product they choose to ship under a Microsoft label. The creation of "Windows N," a version of Windows without Media Player, besides being useless, is wrong. That's a basic principle of human freedom, and governments have no more right to dictate that the humans who ship Windows remove certain portions of what they call their OS than Ballmer has to design Neelie Kroes' wardrobe.

Make Microsoft document the interface through which those inclusions communicate with the rest of the system? Require that it is possible for consumers to choose an alternative to that inclusion, so long as it follows the same communication interfaces? These are all acceptable limitations on corporate activity, and would fall into the same realm (in my opinion) as requiring nutritional information on food products.

Forcing Microsoft to remove pieces of Windows in order to create artificial markets for products, however, is like forcing car companies to exlude wheels and car stereos in order to boost competition in tires or automobile entertainment systems. Microsoft chooses to treat Windows as a large application library with lots of included default features. Microsoft has the right to do that, and other companies have the right to counter it in a number of ways, including offering their own OS (Apple makes their own (mostly), but there are plenty of varieties of open source operating systems that can be packaged into a custom competitor) or paying OEMs to customize Windows by pre-installing their software (something possible with Microsoft, but not possible with, say, a Mac).