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Last word on Microsoft (for awhile)

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 7, 2001
(Issue 1949, The Paperless Generation)

I've spent a lot of time and words taking Microsoft to task in this space over the past few months, and some folks understandably want to know why. Do I just hate Microsoft? Am I secretly envious of Bill Gates' success?

First off, there is no secret to my envy of Gates – who wouldn't like to have his influence, power and wealth?

But there are what I think are really important issues at stake right now, especially for the future of the Internet.

Microsoft is using every resource at its disposal to try to grab control of the Internet – and it seems to me that letting one organization have that much influence over something as important as the Internet would be bad for the rest of us.

Supporters of Microsoft argue that all the software behemoth is doing is introducing standards where none existed before.

And while it's true that the dominance of Windows in the PC world did bring about a sort of market stability for software vendors, the argument that there aren't standards on the Internet has never been true.

From its infancy as the ARPANET in the late 60s, the Internet has always been about nothing if not commonly agreed-upon standards. From the TCP/IP networking protocols at the heart of the Internet to the http web-browsing protocol, the Internet has been built upon a shared set of standards.

These standards are created by international non-profit groups, outfits like the IEEE professional engineers' organization, or the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. Representatives from industry are welcome in these groups, and their decisions are arrived at by consensus.

Now Microsoft is seeking to usurp that entire community of consensus and impose its own standards on the Internet – using the monopoly power of Windows to enforce its stranglehold. Instead of open standards for multimedia, for web browsers, for online commerce – standards that allow anyone to write and sell their own MP3 player, their own web browser, their own electronic transaction suite – we are being force-fed Microsoft's privately held standards.

This is obviously bad for many reasons. First and foremost, it reduces the number of people who can afford to contribute their ideas to the rest of us. As mentioned, anyone can design their own MP3 player – there are no royalties to pay, no licenses to sign. You simply go to and download the specs for how an MP3 file is encoded.

If Microsoft gets its way (through its bundling and tight integration of Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6), there will come a time when most music content on the Web will be in Windows Media format – meaning if you want to listen to online music, it will be with the Windows Media Player. Period.

Microsoft doesn't license third-party developers to create and design their own players for Windows Media files. You can't go to Microsoft's Web site and get the specs for how a Windows Media file is encoded. In fact, if you want to make Windows Media files, you have one choice – and you know who sells it.

The more ominous trend is in online commerce. Right now, if you want to buy something online, you either use the merchant's own site or pay through a third-party site like PayPal or Billpoint. Microsoft, though, now includes sign-up for their online wallet, called Passport, in the Windows XP installation process – what what PayPal and Billpoint give to have instant access to 90 percent of computer users?

That's why so many folks are apprehensive about Microsoft's behavior, why many of us were disappointed that the Bush administration settled the lawsuit against Microsoft in a manner that suggests Microsoft was calling the shots.

Forget the lawsuits ...

If the various states that are continuing to pursue their lawsuit against Microsoft (even as the feds settle) are serious about punishing Microsoft, there is a more effective way to do this than placing their hopes in the capricious hands of our fickle judicial system.

Every state attorney general can simply order that their departments no longer purchase any Microsoft products. Period. Ask the governors to issue orders for the entire state government.

Rather than purchasing Windows or Office, get Apple Macs or put Linux on your Pentiums, with WordPerfect or StarOffice instead of Microsoft Office.

The various legislators that are busy condemning Microsoft (rightly, in my book) ought to get off their lazy duffs and introduce bills to tie state funding of local programs to agreement not to buy anything Microsoft. If school districts want state funds, they'll have to switch to Apple and/or Linux (or BeOS, BSD Unix, NewDeal, etc.).

The congressional representatives and U.S. senators can do the same – have their staffs stop buying Microsoft, and tie federal funds to compliance with a non-Microsoft buying program. Want to bid on a new government contract? Fine, but your contract work better be done on a Mac, Unix or Linux.

If they stick together and refuse to spend taxpayers' money on a company that regularly flaunts its contempt for the rest of us, they'll surely get Microsoft's attention.

If Microsoft starts losing tens of thousands of accounts, you'd be surprised how quickly their corporate behavior will improve.

Maybe it's simply time we put Bill Gates on a long time-out ...