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.comment: Strange Alliances in U.S.v. Microsoft - page 3

First Principles

  • January 24, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

There really isn't a liberal argument to be made against Microsoft, except the one that goes like this: they have something that other people want, and there are more of the other people than there are of them, therefore the other people are right. Then again, liberalism presumes that corporations are mostly bad and that government is mostly good, and by that measure Microsoft is definitionally bad.

But there are two conservative arguments to be made, one in Microsoft's favor and one against.

The classic conservative argument, taken by Rush, with whom I've had the pleasure of discussing it via email over the last year or so:

Armed with nothing but wits and ambition, Bill Gates and Paul Allen formed a little company called Microsoft to market a BASIC interpreter for microcomputers. Gates was largely self-taught, having no college degree at all and little or no formal computer science education. They sought to sell MS-BASIC to IBM, but IBM was looking not for BASIC but for an operating system. Using $50,000 in what we would now call venture capital, the pair bought Q-DOS, rewrote parts of it, and wisely licensed it to IBM. As time went on, Gates and Allen cleverly anticipated ways of making computing more attractive to people who might never have bought a computer, and thus was the industry that has driven the nation's economy for the last decade born. They grew very wealthy as a result, and deserved to. Now those who envy their position (well, Gates's position; Allen left Microsoft years ago) and who oppose business success in general are seeking to tear down Microsoft.

All of which is true, as far as it goes. But there's the argument to be made, too, that while Gates and Allen (and later Gates and Ballmer) earned much of their success, they also achieved much of it through means that are not proper whether it's business or government that undertakes them. Bullying is bullying.

The conservative notion is that it's always better for a thing to be done by someone other than the government, to the extent that's possible. And it's an easy argument to make. Government does much that it has made illegal for others to do: gambling, for instance, is in most states solely run by the government (though it's to be noted that in "private enterprise," the Mob gave better odds in the numbers game, and legal casinos give better odds in other games of chance, than the state ever has or will). Anyone setting up a system structured in the way Social Security is would be run off to jail on charges of putting together a Ponzi scam. Government has the ability to give itself the power to do pretty much anything. That's dangerous.

But business is capable of abuse, too, which can be conservatively defined as something that unfairly harms the individual. Not the group, the individual. To extend Rush's argument, the response might be, "Fine. If Microsoft has harmed you, you can sue Microsoft." And that's theoretically true but practically impossible. If I were to march into court in Powell v. Microsoft, I would be utterly overwhelmed by Microsoft's lawyers, who would be able to run up my legal bills considerably just by working the system. If through some fluke I won, the victory would be appealed. I would run out of money long before Microsoft did. And Microsoft would hotly contest my suit, because anything it has done to me it has done to millions of others. I'm small potatoes, but any precedent I'd set wouldn't be.

And Microsoft's power is difficult to overstate. When Janet Reno's Department of Justice sued Microsoft in 1994 (it later mysteriously folded like a cheap card table, the fix so obviously in that the trial judge, Stanley Sporkin, refused to sign the consent decree), a number of software makers filed friend-of-the-court briefs anonymously.

"Here is a company that is so feared by its competitors that they believe they will be retaliated against if they disclose their identity even in an open proceeding before a U.S. District Court Judge," said Sporkin.

Yes, it's true that businesses, not government, provide jobs and build the economy, and Microsoft has led in that regard. Much has been made of the fact that Gates is giving away much of his money to charities and has established a giant foundation to keep doing this. But we conservatives complain loudly when the government forces us to give up money and then distributes what we see as ill-gotten gains as charity. Can it be any more admirable when business does the same thing?

My position is that there comes a point where business can be abusive of the individual, as government habitually is. It is no joke that Microsoft's preload agreements, where consumers are forced to purchase Windows software they won't use when they buy a new computer, is called "the Microsoft tax." (The counterargument here is that when you buy a new truck, you have to buy it with tires, even if you have other tires that you intend to use. My response: Firestone. Fact is, Microsoft software has precipitated more crashes than Firestone tires ever did.)

Anyone who has followed the computer industry for any length of time knows that Microsoft Corporation has employed some unconscionably heavy-handed tactics, most of which are pretty broadly known, from "DOS won't be released until 1-2-3 won't run" to the patch for Windows 3.1 that prevented it from being used with OS/2 for Windows, to preload agreements that required equipment vendors to buy a license for Windows for every processor shipped, whether the machine had Windows on it or not.

This, in turn, gave the company the power to impose standards. Not standards that were necessarily good for the individuals who would use the software, but standards that were good for Microsoft Corporation. For a number of years, Microsoft's widely self-touted "innovation" has been in the area of changing standards such that existing users would have to pay for upgrades if they were to perform sometimes essential tasks like exchanging files with the buyers of new computers. Sure, there were little "improvements" thrown in so as to make it non-obvious: extras like the animated paperclip in Winword that happens also to be a security exploit. Things like automatic execution of any macro virus that might be attached to an email message -- quite an innovation, that one.

But at bottom what it has done is exercise its power to stifle and kill innovation and to confound the free market as surely as any government edict ever did. And that is the locus of the weird philosophical conundrum that's been made of U.S. v. Microsoft.

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