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Microsoft's monolithic vision

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 11, 2002
(Issue 2041, Internet Grab Bag)

You've probably seen the new ads on television for MSN's high-speed Internet access.

If not, you will. MSN is the Microsoft Network, and Bill Gates has nothing if not money (witness how much he's losing on the doomed X-Box, already being dropped by some retailers due to poor sales).

In the ads, MSN encourages AOL subscribers to switch to the Microsoft service.

In and of itself, it's hard to argue that point — for far too long, AOL has pretty much had the Internet access market to itself on a national level.

Still, if AOL has been the Microsoft of the online world, it's difficult to see how making Microsoft the Microsoft of the online world is going to help consumers.

Too much control

Letting Microsoft become a major player in the Internet connection sector would be a disaster for consumers — even if we're the ones stupid enough to sign up with MSN.

Allowing MSN to dominate Internet access the way its parent company dominates operating systems would be like letting GM and Ford run the highway system their cars run on.

Actually, it would be worse — imagine GM and Ford also owning most of the nation's hotels, department stores and gas stations. Because Microsoft either outright owns (Expedia) or partners with a growing number of online retailers (MSN Visa card, MSNBC news) — often with links built right into Windows. And if the link isn't in Windows (often in Internet Explorer), then it's sure embedded loudly, prominently into the MSN and Microsoft Web sites — the first sites most folks will see when they log on.

An opportunity for abuse

Now you have an idea of what Microsoft's corporate strategy is about: control every aspect of your online experience: the operating system will steer you to Microsoft-owned or controlled retailers; if you ignore that "advice," then the default Web sites on your system will reinforce the message.

The frightening thing is that if one company has that much control, then it could conceivably start taking away our ability to defy its will. Microsoft could change its Internet Explorer Web Browser to simply refuse to go to Microsoft's online competitors.

We've already seen something similar earlier this year when started refusing to allow Mozilla and Opera browsers to connect — instead redirecting those users to a page where they could download IE.

At first, Microsoft claimed it was because those browsers weren't fully HTML-compliant (although given IE's spotty adherence to standards, that claim was farce at best), but then some tech-savvy reporters looked at the code on the MSN pages and found that the servers were told to look for Mozilla and Opera browsers specifically — not to look for HTML compliance.

The next day, MSN worked just fine with all browsers.

Eternal vigilance

Which shows that when its shenanigans are exposed, Microsoft will back down. And given the Bush administration's lack of stomach for corporate oversight, we're unlikely to see the feds discouraging Microsoft from violating antitrust law.

So perhaps we should be grateful that Gates is still sensitive to public shame — that he can be coerced into behaving somewhat decently.

Because MSN's Internet connectivity business is likely to grow — giving Gates yet more control over our online choices.

Keeping the non-Microsoft choices available may depend on our willingness to be vigilant, and to publicly expose any abuses that may arise.