|Microsoft clearly does not hold a monopoly in all software. Anyone
can write software just as anyone can write a book or a song. But books
and songs don't plug into each other and interoperate. And, unlike a writer
or musician, Microsoft can force you to buy a license to its copyright
when you buy your computer, and then by its own actions, declare your license
obsolete. This is because Microsoft does hold a monopoly- on the specification
of a public interface standard - the conventions by which all software
appliances access computer services.
An interface standard specifies the means of interaction between appliances and services. It must be stable, and described to the public in enough detail to encourage its broad adoption. Once so described, others can supply services and build appliances which "plug in" and interoperate correctly. The electric outlet and the telephone jack are interface standards which specify power and information conventions and allow various vendors to make the appliances which plug into the services provided by utilities. There are many new plug standards which have arisen in the computer age and are stable and well managed by the industries.
Because the specification of an interface is published, we would naturally
expect free market capitalism to work on either side of the interface
- to bring down the cost of the service by allowing competitors to provide
alternatives, and by allowing competing appliance vendors to lower manufacturing
costs by focusing on one
However, there have been times when the nation has allowed its interface
standards to be privately controlled, by an Interface-Based Monopoly (IBM).
The telephone company was an IBM, which extended coast to coast and into
our private property, successfully resisting the use of alternative telephony
In fact, the instruction set architecture, or assembly language, of
Int'l Business Machines 360 computer (also an IBM!) was so public that
every computer programmer in the world was taught to write applications
in it and interpret its core dumps. Being a published standard, of course,
other computer companies could
Now imagine there was one company which "owned" the specification of
It seems so silly, yet this is exactly the pattern of monopolistic exploitation
A few small changes to Microsoft's operating system interface, usually
When the proprietary Windows 2000 "standard" is issued shortly, older software appliances will break in little ways and new appliances won't plug into existing computers, and so we will all be forced to purchase, yet again, the same old code in a new package. In fact it won't even have a package - it will be downloaded to your disk while your bank account is charged.
Microsoft isn't the only IBM, but it is the most nefarious one today because it has no investment in hardware to hold it back. Intel is the only company which can add instructions to the current ISA. Adobe can tweak postscript and HP can tweak PCL, but older versions continue to be universally supported because they are instantiated in hardware. Sun wants to be the definer of Java, so its compilers are definitive. Netscape, was formed on the privatization of a public domain standard, and, for a while, held the power to add new conventions to HTML. This is the power that Microsoft grabbed away from Netscape - not the ability to give away browsers!
The Microsoft Monopoly itself is not the disease,
merely the biggest symptom of the new intangible economy gone wrong.
Neutering Microsoft will simply allow a new dictator to get in bed with