Embrace, extend, and standardize. Last week I was cleaning out an old desk when I found a box of five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. They contained much of the work I'd done in graduate school, including my master's thesis. And though I didn't throw them out, they are also utterly worthless: the documents imbedded on them were created on a Radio Shack Color Computer, a machine with its own perverse and obscure operating system, abandoned by the world some 15 years ago.
Which brings to mind last Friday's decision by US District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to give Microsoft little more than a slap on the wrist in the seemingly endless antitrust case. The suit had long since been abandoned by the federal government, but it continues to be pursued like Moby Dick by a handful of Ahab-esque attorneys general, including Tom Reilly of Massachusetts. The desultory media coverage Kollar-Kotelly's ruling generated shows that we live in a world considerably different from the one that existed in 1997, when the Clinton administration first filed suit. Amid the wreckage of the New Economy, Microsoft -- a technology company that makes real products and turns a real profit -- now looks pretty good.
Moreover, the commodification of the personal computer and the software that makes it useful has advanced considerably during the past five years. Bill Gates likes to talk about the "freedom to innovate," but that's always been ridiculous. Microsoft's products over the years have invariably been derivative and, in many cases, inferior to products that came to market first. The company's real innovation has been to bring dozens of competing standards under one roof and to enable nearly everyone who uses a personal computer to speak the same language. I don't like Microsoft Word, and I don't use it. Yet the ability to share files created with Word makes for a much more efficient universe. I pay a price for my obstinacy, having to use kludgy translation software whose results are imperfect at best. Even more important, files created with Word today are likely to be readable in at least some form 15 years from now, unlike my poor lost master's thesis. For the vast majority of us, innovation is nice, but standards are better. The Wall Street Journal editorial page today puts it this way:
We've always argued that Microsoft's sin, if you'd call it that, was primarily in giving consumers what they wanted -- a standard operating system for hardware and software makers alike. Quibbles over the company's hardball business strategies aside, the main effect of its monopoly position was to get new Web tools to consumers quickly and efficiently, vastly speeding up the PC revolution.
That's too sunny a spin, but it's right on the facts.
The frustrating thing, and one many Microsoft critics seemingly can't get over, is that Gates and company won by waging total, relentless war against their competitors, illegally (don't forget that) exploiting the monopoly their Windows operating system enjoyed to harm other products, such as Netscape Navigator and Sun's Java. Last week, Salon.com ran a detailed, two-part report that Microsoft's tactics continue: the company has reportedly incorporated features of streaming-video software called Burst into its Windows Media Player, and is being sued by Burst.com.
My view of the Microsoft case is admittedly colored by two factors. First, I own some Microsoft stock. Second, I don't use any Microsoft products, with the exception of Internet Explorer for the Macintosh. (I also sometimes use Mozilla, an "open source" alternative to Explorer that is supposed to be the choice of concerned anti-Microsofties everywhere. Guess what? It's not as good.) Yes, I like standards, but I've gambled that Apple has succeeded in establishing an alternative standard that will be supported well into the forseeable future. So, yes, I'd like my stock to increase in value, and no, I don't believe that anyone is forced to use Microsoft products, which is what the Tom Reillys of the world would have you believe.
Mr. Attorney General, if you'll abandon your futile quest, I will send you a box of five-and-quarter-inch disks. The postage is on me.