Microsoft is on trial. While some of their business practices may indeed be questionable, the trial is about more than that: the US government is asserting a newly invented right to dictate operating system design. Apparently Microsoft violated anti-trust law when it decided to include Internet browser features in its Windows operating system.

It obviously doesn't matter that this practice wasn't even started by Microsoft. I have a copy of OS/2 Warp Connect, released months before the first "public beta" of Windows 95 hit the streets, containing a little utility by the name of IBM WebExplorer. At the time, and for some time afterwards, Windows 95 didn't even contain a browser; it was sold separately, as part of the Plus! add-on package. It doesn't seem to matter that other operating systems, including many distributions of the popular Linux, came packaged with browsers. Apparently if you're a market leader, you're not only not allowed to innovate, even catching up with your competition is forbidden!

Then there were those public statements and threats by Netscape that their technology, coupled with the Java language, will make desktop operating systems, the market of which Microsoft dominates, obsolete within a decade. Whether you believe in this prediction or not is beside the point. The question is why it is forbidden for Microsoft to respond to this challenge by adding features to its products to prevent obsolescence. If you're big, you can't compete by matching what your competition offers or plans to offer?

Then there this little issue about anti-trust laws in general. Aren't they supposed to protect the customer, not the competition? If so, why is it a problem when a big company, instead of abusing its monopoly power by raising prices, actually lowers prices and adds features, i.e., sells more for less? If the anti-trust laws are for the benefit of the customer, can someone explain why we would be better off if we had to buy all extra features for our operating system installation separately, from different vendors of potentially incompatible products? (Been there, done that. Not again, thanks!)

But is Microsoft truly a monopoly? That depends on how you define what a monopoly is. If your market is defined to match precisely the products you sell, well, then everybody is a monopoly! Bill's Toilet Seats has a monopoly over the market of Bill's brand of toilet seats, no? Fact is, if you look at Microsoft as a software company, the latest figures I am familiar with show that Microsoft is only the second largest software company in the United States, and has a hold over only two percent of the global software market. (IBM is first, with approximately four percent.) Is this truly a monopoly? Of course, Microsoft does have a near-monopoly in the market of desktop operating systems... but even that monopoly isn't absolute, strong contenders, even startups, exist and continuously threaten the Microsoft hegemony, and besides, if some pundits are to be believed, the very concept of a desktop operating system will be obsolete anyway a decade from now.

Do you want to know what a real monopoly is? Why, there's MCI WorldCom. A fine company (I am, after all, one of their customers and not an unhappy one) that nevertheless managed to take hold of something like seventy percent of the Internet backbone market. Talk about a monopoly that truly prevents you from having a choice! (Not because of some evil conspiracy, mind you, it's simply the nature of the business: the Internet backbone is more like a utility, not a shrink-wrapped box that you can pick up at a neighborhood software store.) As of this very moment, half of Ottawa is without Internet access, because one of UUNet Canada's (an MCI WorldCom company, as they proudly proclaim) core routers is down and has been under repair for several hours. Many government sites, many local ISPs rely on this backbone, so even if I'd switched ISPs, chances are I'd still be affected by the problem. I can install OS/2 (hey, it really ain't Microsoft's fault that OS/2 is no longer in stock in IBM's own stores, is it?), Linux, QNX, SCO UnixWare (just to name a few Windows alternatives) on my PC anytime, but what can I do when PING NS.UUNET.CA returns nothing and a TRACEROUTE to anywhere beyond my local network dies after the first hop from my router?

Or could it be that people are just upset because a rather average-looking geek managed to become the richest man in the world with 85 billion dollars in his pocket and still counting? He couldn't have it done honestly, right? Perhaps he made all this money if not by abusing monopoly power, then by hiding vital details about his operating system so only his company can write decent software for it? (I wonder, then, why in my 15+ years of DOS and Windows programming, I have not yet encountered a problem that I really couldn't properly solve using only information published by Microsoft.)

US Senator Orrin Hatch called on Microsoft to explain how they can operate with a 30% profit margin. A while back, I thought making an extra profit was only a crime in Stalinist Eastern Europe. Now, I am no longer so sure. Perhaps North America is finally ready to enter a brave new era when the rich are to be mistrusted, making a profit is a crime, and we carry out our business under the government's watchful eyes less we misbehave. I can hardly wait...