When closed-source and monopolies rule, users are cornered to upgrade at great cost
On Friday, November 5, 1999 Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson wrote in his ruling that Microsoft had used its monopoly position to harm consumers and rival software companies. Jackson concluded that because of a high barrier to entry there are no viable alternatives to Windows operating system software. Microsoft declared that they were ready to find a solution that was "fair to Microsoft, fair to the government, and most of all fair to consumers".
Microsoft is a virtual monopoly in PC operating systems. Microsoft has been trying hard to become a monopoly. Microsoft and Gates have had vision, and they have avoided the blunders of other software makers. The weakness of IBM's OS/2 or Apple's Mac OS in the marketplace do not depend primarily on Microsoft's actions. These were proprietary software schemes linked to proprietary lines of computers (PS/2s and Macs respectively). Both failed technically and commercially because of their more proprietary nature. If these operating systems had been more open and flexible, both could have won the battle for the most popular desktop operating system earlier. Programmers and users chose the most open operating system for PCs available at the time. Still, Microsoft's Windows is not an open operating system either. At least it is a closed source code system.
The current situation in software markets is far from ideal. Users and rival software makers are frustrated. Users are coerced to upgrade their applications at great cost whenever Microsoft chooses to release an operating system upgrade. The Windows operating system is not perfect. Many users think it is a heavy kludge. A leaner and more stable operating system would suit them better. Luckily there are rival software makers that would want to enter in the compatible operating system and application software arena. What makes life difficult for them is that the Windows spec is partly secret and constantly on the move.
More choices reduce the total cost of computing and make for better solutions
The competitive situation of software makers should be more even - in the US and Europe alike, and around the world. Software makers and interested hobbyists should have access to the innards of the underlying operating system. Wider availability of this kind of knowledge is not without problems (e.g. safety, viruses). This probably means that certain critical portions of the operating system must be kept secret even in the future. There are talented programmers and even proficient user-programmers galore. The bazaar should rule (See: The Cathedral and the Bazaar).
Consumers should have more and leaner options. The widely successful Windows 95-98 line could perhaps be supplemented by new Windows 3.x and multitasking DOS versions. Microsoft is not interested in developing these older systems which are still widely used. Microsoft is not actively supplying applications to older operating systems it has made or even keeping old versions of its applications available. This is coercing the consumer to upgrade. I admit that many upgrade quite willingly, but there are those who would like to continue using older tried-and-true software and would still like to see some enhancements over time. The availability and serviceability of older systems and applications software is a big issue, a great deal bigger than the much ballyhooed Y2K problem.
More openness might result in increased program stability (better debugging the bazaar way), less software bloat, less costly computing, better availability of software for older operating systems (updated DOS and Win 3.x versions). In a word, more choices for users.
The lack of long-time support and maintenance is the true software time bomb, not the Y2K problem.
Open-source checks and balances
The Microsoft trial has made it evident that the ruling operating system maker can control entry to the compatible operating system and application software arena. The situation would not be much different if IBM's OS/2 or Apple's Mac OS had won in the marketplace. In fact, it would be worse. Now you can at least choose between compatible PCs. If IBM or Apple had had their way, you would have to buy a complete system (i.e. a hardware and software combination) from them.
The bottom line of this reasoning is that you should not regulate or split (or whatever) one successful company, but the entire software industry. The rules of the game need badly some kind of checks and balances. Our task is to find a solution that is fair to all parties concerned and, in addition, will advance the state of the art as much as possible.
How to regulate the software industry and maintain the legitimate rights of all parties concerned?
What we need is an international software copyright convention and national (US, EU, Japanese, etc.) legislation to match. To put it simply, software copyrights should be granted only to archived source code and the resultant executable programs and for a limited period of time, say ten years. All source code should be archived. After the mandated ten year period it would pass into the public domain and could be released for reuse. Why reinvent, when you can reuse?
Applications should enjoy more protection than operating software. All operating software should be marketed only as source code or as executables with available source code. Users should have the possibility to make any changes they want and need. This is nothing new in the free Unix or Linux world. This could be considered reasonable use of an operating system. Now, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Some patents and trade secrets may need protection from everyone's eyes. There are critical safety concerns. We need some provisions for these cases, but they should be limited and clearly stated in the legislation.
This would mean that Microsoft's decision to include a browser in the operating system would by law immediately upon release uncover the technical details of the browser to users and rivals alike. If a browser were marketed as an application, it would have a ten-year closed-source code option, after which its source code would become public knowledge. In order to avoid any attempt to circumvent this rule, one should consider the case of self-contained running environments when the application and the operating environment make an indivisible whole (certain games are an example of this). These should be considered operating-system software for the purposes of the law.
"Microsoft is gearing up, sooner rather than later, to sell software as a service" (Microsoft Waits For No One by Mary Jo Foley, ZDNet's Sm@rt Reseller). To counteract this blurring of the concept of canned software, one should consider all Internet-style service (or Java, etc.) applications as operating-system software. Hence source code should be immediately available to everyone.
The benefits to software users would be many. Generic applications would become as commonplace and cheap as generic drugs. Costly upgrades and bloated software kludges would be a thing of the past. The face of the industry would be changed permanently. Software makers would perhaps have to earn their keep as upgrade consultants refining their solutions to suit the specific needs of each individual user. These new rules of the game would tip the scales against software behemoths. Innovative small companies would flourish once again like in the early days of the computer revolution.
Kari Eveli - 29 November 1999.
The writer is the author of several books on computing and computer
terminology as well as a trained linguist, lexicographer, and publisher.
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