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Does Bill Gates just not get it?

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 14, 2001

(Issue 1937, Workplace Alternatives)

You'd think after getting slapped around by the courts for the past few years, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates might start to figure out that he's not bigger than the government. That he can't just do whatever he wants.

That no one – not even a multi-billionaire with delusions of grandeur – is above the law.

It would seem a lesson that has yet to sink in. Gates just rolls along, ignoring court orders about his business practices as if they were so much tissue paper.

Not only does he simply disregard federal court rulings about his ongoing business practices with regards to Windows 95 and 98, but with the pending release of Windows XP, Gates is trying to expand his control from computer operating systems to the very Internet itself.

While Microsoft's well-oiled public relations machine happily purrs about all the improvements Windows XP offers over earlier versions of Windows (not that that's any great shakes, given what a kludge Windows continues to be), what the U.S. Justice Department and the states attorneys general are reporting is a bit more ominous.

It seems that the built-in utilities with XP – things like photo editors and personal information managers – not only are likely designed to drive third-party software companies out of business, but are are also being used to steer Windows users to pre-selected online merchants.

Reportedly, beta versions of the built-in photo manager, for instance, will offer to help you make prints of your digital pictures. When you click on that menu, though, it takes you directly to merchants who have paid to be placed on Microsoft's Web site. Want to buy travel tickets? Again, you'll end up at Microsoft's Web site – with your choices limited to those merchants with enough money to buy their way onto

The chutzpah is incredible.

Faced with a possible break-up of Microsoft for his efforts to drive Netscape out of business, Gates responds not by adhering to the court's directive to knock it off – he decides to make Windows itself the portal to the Web.

Gaining control of the browser market wasn't enough – it's still fairly easy for folks to ignore the built-in bookmarks in Microsoft's Internet Explorer and go shop anywhere they want online.

But if Windows' built-in utilities will by default take you to specified merchants that Microsoft dictates (or Microsoft's own online shopping destinations), then it becomes that much more difficult to ignore Microsoft's ability to dictate your choices. Hardcore computer hobbyists will always find ways to work around Microsoft's shenanigans, but how many computer newcomers will even know how to go about doing so?

The states attorneys general – as well as some members of Congress – are considering the possibility of asking the federal courts to block Microsoft from selling Windows XP upon its final release in October – unless and until Microsoft stops trying to control consumers' online choices.

The attorneys general have both law and precedent on their side. In the 1950s, the government ruled that the Hollywood movie studios could not also run the local theaters – that to allow companies to control that much of a single sector of the economy was inherently monopolistic and would by its very nature limit customers' choices and eventually drive prices up. Automobile manufacturers such as Ford and G.M. can't own local dealerships; the networks can't own the local TV stations.

Should Microsoft be able to control both the operating system market and the primary portal to the Internet?

It's hard to see how that could possibly benefit consumers.