Jaundiced View

There's a feeling here that the ongoing Microsoft trial is not so much about the future of antitrust or Microsoft as it is about the future of software. Certainly, the company is uniquely powerful, and most likely it has been unfairly aggressive in the marketplace. But what really galls Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public-- the gallery for which the trial is staged -- is that Microsoft's Bill Gates became the richest man in the world and didn't even have to get his hands dirty in the process. The antitrust suit against Microsoft buys the Department of Justice far more headlines than a suit against Mobil or Exxon (which together are about 11 times Microsoft's size in revenue) ever could. And it chastises a fellow who didn't even have to screw in a light bulb (that's a hardware problem) on his way to unfathomable wealth.

If there is a shadow trial going on in the court of public opinion, there is also a shadow trial among the tech-nical elite. To what do I refer? Running concurrently with the
trial is the ascendant Open Sore, excuse me, Open Source movement, which holds that everything below the water line of applications should be free and open. That Sun Microsystems has thrown in the towel on its efforts to make money on Java -- always a questionable proposition -- further spurs the Open Source effort.

Gates and Microsoft, as keepers of the operating system -- and the largest independent software company -- bear the burden of software's tenuous importance. Everyday people and high-tech priests alike feel that computers should just work. That Microsoft is aligned in its trial against a host of hardware vendors that have been giving away the software for as long as anyone can remember, an application software mainstay (Oracle) that sponsors network computer development, and one failed software upstart (Netscape), only adds to the impression that Microsoft's true sin is being an independent software vendor. But "burden" probably isn't the right word for the load that Microsoft carries, as its DOS and Windows operating systems have been the springboard to applications success, stock options of stunning value and a pretty nice house on the lake for Mr. Gates.

As someone who spent most of his career covering hardware, I can tell you that a lot of people on the other side have a limited respect for software makers, no matter at what level they operate. If you shake it and it's ill-built, it should rattle. This is a hardware truism, based on physical facts, that works on everything from Christmas toys to Compaq Presarios. The rattle test has killed many a sale and saved many a buck. But the rattle test doesn't work on software. Often times, you don't find out that your software is broken until you put it alongside another piece of software. Gravity, a rattle test essential, got me where I am, and it has been hard to adjust to a world ruled by software, it being immune to this essential phenomenon.

Harder to adjust to still, was that the king of modern software was undeserving of its throne. At least that was my opinion when covering Microsoft became part of my job a half-dozen years ago. After all, IBM just randomly selected DOS as the PC operating system on a day when Gary Kildall didn't feel like getting out of the hot tub.

As we've said before, Microsoft should be punished where predatory selling and pricing is found. But we don't think operating systems need to be any more free than microprocessors. And Microsoft should not be punished for its dumb luck, which it has intelligently recognized as such, and which has driven it to excel. I have three or four dozen non-Microsoft applications running on two or three machines -- far more than a half-dozen at a time -- and that is thanks to Windows 95, not Linux.

The Open Source movement is very familiar to Gates. Something that can be so easily copied can't have value. That was the song that haunted him in the early days. During the California Computer Faire and hot tub era, Gates and compatriot Paul Allen had to battle the original Open Source movement of hackers and straight-out software pirates. The betting here is that Gates understands this and will find a means to counter it. Rather than spin off his operating system business, he might buy a hardware company. Entering
the hardware morass by buying a Compaq or a Hewlett-Packard would buy Gates more goodwill than funding a thousand Third World health clinics -- which, I admit, is a sad commentary.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.