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The CyberSym Technical Corner!

Here you'll find our comments on topics of computing interest. Read on for the current "blazing" topic or click on the line below for the index of "smoldering" topics.

Index of Smoldering (previous) Topics.

BLAZING TOPIC

Why the Current U.S. Justice Department Action Against Microsoft is Dangerous?

The current effort by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to prevent Microsoft from including its web browser (Internet Explorer) in its Windows 95 operating system has dangerous implications. Perhaps understandably, there are many people inside and outside the industry who support this action by DOJ because it potentially weakens Microsoft. Nevertheless this specific action sets a bad precedent for the industry, is based on bad logic, and could ultimately be very bad for the economy.

Bad Precedent. This case sets a dangerous precedent by attempting to regulate the content of a computer software product (in this case, an operating system). The U.S. Government DOES have a very legitimate role to play in regulating business practices and relationships—areas in which it has demonstrable experience. It DOES NOT have any appropriate role in regulating product specifications or content (other than through intellectual property registration). In fact, commercial computer software and hardware are arenas in which the government has very little meaningful expertise. That fact is immediately apparent to anyone who has ever attempted to use a government computer.

Bad Logic. DOJ's position that a web browser is not an appropriate component of a modern operating system is not logically sound. An operating system consists of three basic parts:

  • System Programming Layer. A software layer(s) used to access the common computer hardware in a standardized fashion. This includes an API (application programming interface) used by programmers/developers to control the system hardware from within other software applications they write.
  • System User Interface. A user interface(s) that enables a user (be they developer, system engineer, or consumer) to carry out common operations using the computer hardware. Conventionally this includes tools for analyzing, viewing, and manipulating various aspects of the system (e.g., file organization). Historically, this has also included viewers/editors for common file types such as text files.
  • System Documentation. Help files, multimedia demonstrations, and example applications designed to make the system readily usable. Often this includes a few games chosen to allow a user to become comfortable manipulating the system hardware.
Clearly today the capability for internet connectivity (e.g., TCP/IP, sockets) should reside in the system programming layer of any good operating system. (This may be distressing news for independent purveyors of winsocks, etc., but it's the price of rapid technological progress.) Likewise anyone knowledgeable about modern computer use really must conclude that a web browser belongs in the system user interface of any good operating system. It's entirely analogous to including text editors in operating systems a decade ago.

Bad for the Economy. Government meddling in the U.S. computer industry—particularly anything that complicates internet use—could have very damaging effects on the economy. Over the last 6 or 7 years, the computer industry has been one of the most consistent growth sectors of the U.S. economy. During the last several years, computers have accounted for about 30% of growth in GDP—most of that growth revolving around the internet and the consumer market. Currently the computer industry contributes 3-4% of the U.S. economy (as much as automotive). But most of the more technology-adept consumers already have computers connected to the internet. Continued growth in this sector is therefore going to require that new consumers can connect easily and successfully to the internet and world wide web. This is what operating systems are all about! Anything that interferes with such easy connectivity could easily have negative effects on our economy.

There are myriad complex reasons why DOJ has taken this action now. Microsoft has used rather predatory business practices against smaller competitors over the years, although DOJ has shown little interest. Microsoft is an aggressive and successful company, and it's often easy to envy or dislike success. Currently, there is not much serious competition in the operating system and desktop tools markets. This is more a consequence of ineffectiveness on the part of Microsoft's competitors than of anticompetitive practices (real or imagined) on the part of Microsoft. Nevertheless those competitors would evidently rather complain about Microsoft's share of the market than engage in the kind of critical self-analysis necessary for their own success. All these factors have combined to instigate a fundamentally unsound attack on an important operating system product. Finally the computer industry itself has been less than thorough and objective in responding to the DOJ action.

Indeed, industry complacence about this DOJ action and the lack of meaningful operating system competition probably both derive from the same failed understanding. Most computer engineers understand computer hardware well and tend to be very comfortable with the system programming layer of an operating system. As a consequence they often fail to fully appreciate the importance of the system user interface and system documentation. In many technology companies, this sort of myopia extends all the way into upper management. That's unfortunate because an operating system (or critical system product) is not going to be successful in the consumer market unless it has strong user interface functionality, consistency, and documentation. There also need to be compelling incentives for other companies to develop compatible products. Such incentives often include free or inexpensive development tools and quality examples of how to properly develop applications using the API. (This has the additional benefit that it leads to overall consistency and ease for the end-user.) All this requires SIGNIFICANT investment and discipline in graphic design, market research, usability testing, and developer outreach. Neither the industry in general nor Microsoft's specific competitors seem to have the vision to do all this as reliably as Microsoft.

In summary, computer industry experts, Microsoft's competitors, government policymakers, and the courts all need to thoroughly grasp one central point. Crippling Microsoft's products (whether web browsers, operating systems, developer's tools, or whatever) will not cause otherwise uncompetitive products to sell—particularly to consumers who don't have computers and don't know why they need them. Real competition in computer operating systems and related hardware/software will only come about when Microsoft's competitors learn to make their products obviously useful and usable. None of Microsoft's actions have so far prevented that. No action by the U.S. Dept. of Justice will cause it.

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