Microsoft DOJ Decision Debate

First Published:
Date Published: 1997
Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Savetz

Neil Randall: I've been pretty much on the fence when it came to the pro-Microsoft vs. anti-Microsoft sentiments, but for the first time I have to lean towards Gates & Co. The Dept of Justice ruling that they have to make Windows available without Internet Explorer shows that the Dept of Justice has no idea what's going on in the computing world. While it's not hard to get a system with Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0 and Internet Explorer 3, IE4 changes the game, and Windows 98 and Windows NT 5.0 have IE at their core. I've argued several times that the incorporation of the browser into the operating system for these new releases (it started with IE4) represents the most significant change in the user interface since the Macintosh hit in 1984. For the first time, you're supposed to "browse" your computer, and everything on it, and for the first time your computer is fully meshed into your local networks and the Internet. The mouse is more powerful than ever before, and so is usability (once people stop fighting it). Getting rid of this throws computer innovation back at least a dozen years.

Pisses me off, actually. I hate siding with Microsoft. But what really pisses me off is all the U.S. companies who are suddenly saying that the government is right to step in and tell the computer industry what it must do. That is as un-American as I can possibly imagine. But American business is nothing if not wholly hypocritical.

Kevin Savetz: The goverment has been telling the computer industry what to do for years, on every base from cryptography to exporting to software patents. But the government has stepped in on many industries to put the kibosh on anti-competitive business practices. In this case, it's not just the computer industry -- and the U.S. government certainly isn't picking on Microsoft. What it comes down to it this: for better or worse, there was a court order telling Microsoft to unbundle Explorer from Windows. So the company goes and does just the opposite, making the browser an integral part of Windows 98. Bill fought the law, and the law won.

The idea that getting rid of the browser-as-primary-interface "throws computer innovation back at least a dozen years" is absurd. I happen to think this interface trick is a horrible step backward, but even folks who do like it don't see it as a quantum leap forward. The web browser is familiar, yes, and generally easy to use, but it is not the perfect user interface on which all future interfaces should be built. I can't stop laughing at your idea that the Win98/IE combo will be more usable, "once people stop fighting it." I suspect this attitude prevails at Microsoft. "Damn what the users want, this is how the new interface is going to be!" Resistance is futile.

Neil Randall: I agree that Bill didn't do what he was told. He can't do that. But for me, that isn't the point here: the point is, why was Microsoft told to unbundle IE from Windows? That's what I don't buy. To me, it was a decision that simply said, "Go Back, For No Apparent Reason." You pass over the whole thing with your "for better or for worse" comment, but whether it's for better or for worse is exactly what we have to determine. To me, it's for worse, for the sake of progress in computer interaction.

We obviously don't agree on the browser-based interface, but I honestly believe it's a major step forward. Sun has been trumpeting for years that the network is the computer, and Windows with IE4 (and Win98 and WinNT5) are making that happen. Even the most obvious part of the interface - the single click - transforms the computing experience dramatically. I've been using IE4 since it's first pre-release, and the single-click, combined with browser-based everything, has improved my interaction with the machine considerably. It's as different in total feel as the Macintosh's interface was from DOS's way back when. And let's face it, nothing much has happened to interfaces since then.

Ironically, IE4 is Microsoft's first attempt at something new in interface design (until now, they've just adapted the Mac GUI idea), and it's getting slammed primarily because it's innovative. That's what I mean by fighting it. Nobody knew anybody wanted the Mac interface when it first appeared, but Apple just gave it to them and said, like it or lump it. People liked it. Microsoft's blunder in IE4, in fact, was listening to the users, and not forcing the full thing (you can opt for the older look and feel). Is it the interface on which future interfaces should be built? No, but that's because the entire icon-driven interface needs an overhaul, badly.

Kevin Savetz: It should be crystal clear why the courts told Miscrsoft to unbundle its browser. Microsoft operating systems account for, what, 90% of all OS sales? The company has a near-monopoly -- and there's nothing wrong with that. It won that market share fair and square (more or less). But when the company forces resellers, developers, etc. to bundle IE, and when it includes a copy of IE with every copy of Windows 95 and NT that it sells, it is leveraging its OS monopoly to try to gain another, a monopoly of the browser market. I don't about you, but I'd like Netscape to survive. Why will people bother to install Netscape's browser if Internet Explorer is already installed on their computer? Answer: most people won't. As a result, Netscape's market share crumbles, Microsoft wins again with another monopoly. Nobody wins but Microsoft stockholders.

Consider the parallels between the history of operating systems and web browsers. NCSA practically invented the web browser. Netscape comes in, refines the concept and delivers it to the mass market. Then Microsoft comes in, steals the best ideas and trounces the competition. Think back a few years: Xerox PARC invented the graphical user interface. Apple refined it and delivered the Mac to the mass market. What came next? Microsoft swaggered in, stole the best ideas and trounced the competition. Do you see a pattern?

Neil Randall: It's interesting, Kevin, that you say that Netscape and Apple *refined* the concept, while Microsoft *stole* the best ideas. Netscape stole from Mosaic (including the programmers, for heaven's sake), and Apple stole from Xerox PARC. Period. There's not question that Microsoft rips off ideas - that's been their modus operadi for as long as they've been around - but who doesn't? But I still think, and I'll admit it's naive, that the way to avoid monopolies is to offer alternatives, and the computer industry simply hasn't done that well enough for users to want to adopt them.

Articles by Kevin Savetz