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The Post-Microsoft Era 525

Posted by JonKatz
from the -Morning-After-Judge-Jackson's-Findings-Of-Fact dept.
On the Net, the notion that Microsoft is predatory and monopolistic is old news, but this was sure a stunner to most Americans, who've been reading all those adoring profiles for more than a decade. Judge Jackson's findings of fact drew big headlines and flooded the talk shows all weekend. Microsoft's fat stockholders won't have a happy day today either, as brokers and analysts weigh in after a busy weekend of reading. As one said on CNN yesterday: the judge's report isn't pretty.
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Welcome to the Post-Microsoft Era.

For many of the people reading this, today offers a different reality than Friday morning, the demarcation between one period and, suddenly, another.

On the Net, the idea that Microsoft is predatory, ruthless, greedy and monopolistic is so endemic, so long ingrained, that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's findings of fact almost seem to be merely affirming an obvious truth.

Off-line, in the parallel universe, it's a different story. There, where Bill Gates has been lionized as a mainstream icon and Millenial visionary, the findings are a shock. America's favorite new media executive, the one who made all this crazy new stuff seem safe and comprehensible to old-line businesspeople and adoring journalists, was de-constructed in the very cold-blooded, take-no-prisoners, business-like manner that's been such a hallmark of his own style.

It's almost impossible to find a critical profile or probing interview of the man in all of traditional media. Try it yourself. For years, the most powerful people in journalism and politics have made the pilgrimages to Redmond, kneeling before the great man, appropriately admiring the digital chips that change the artwork on the walls of his gargantuan home.

So the idea that his mythic company brutalized competitors and then brazenly lied about it in federal court for months is an understandable surprise, triggering big headlines, special TV reports, and a talk show blabathon - especially on CNN, MSNBC and CNBC -- that will only accelerate today when financial markets re-open and brokers and analysts get their sound-bites off.

This will not be a happy day for Microsoft or its many fat and happy stockholders. Investors and analysts have now had the weekend to digest Judge Jackson's brutal indictment of Microsoft and its business practices and, as one of them told CNN on Sunday, "It isn't pretty, I can tell you."

Judge Jackson, First Finding Of Fact: 'Three main facts indicate that Microsoft enjoys monopoly power. First, Microsoft's chare of the market for Intel-compatible PC operating systems is extremely large and stable. Second, Microsoft's dominant market share is protected by a high barrier to entry. Third, and largely as a result of that barrier, Microsoft's customers lack a commercially viable alternative to Windows.'

The shock waves seemed to spread in concentric circles Friday, starting with media, moving through the computing industry, then onto Wall Street and, over the weekend, through countless Net chat rooms, mailing lists and messaging system conferences.

"Judge Wakes Up the Blasé Investors Who Shrugged Off the Antitrust Case," headlined the Sunday New York Times.

Judge Jackson's Second Finding Of Fact: 'It is Microsoft's corporate practice to pressure other firms to halt software development that either shows the potential to weaken the applications barrier to entry or competes directly with Microsoft's most cherished sofware products.'

The irony is that even before the Judge's ruling -- in which he officially found that MS had engaged in a longstanding bullying campaign to screw consumers, monopolize the software market, discourage competitors and slow new-product innovation - we were already entering the Post-Microsoft Era.

Bill Gates was slow to spot the Web explosion in the mid-90s. Even when he did, Microsoft's efforts to compete in the Web media, communications, electronic, portal and e-commerce fields have generally failed.

To be sure, Microsoft is a vast, enormously powerful company with staggering reserves, and notions that it will perish or disintegrate are silly. But the most exciting, significant and profitable evolutions of the Web have been happening at a distance from the company for some time. Microsoft no longer dominates business computing, and is much less feared and respected that it was even a year ago.

Although Microsoft seemed - arrogantly and unaccountably - to almost brush off the Justice Department's suit (the Judge openly sneered at Gates' testimony, and the company rejected a number of settlement opportunities and was almost brazenly contemptuous and dishonest in its versions of events), it seems fitting that this unspeakably rich and powerful corporation has finally been taken down by the one monopolistic entity left that's more powerful than it is - the United States government.

Whether it's a good or bad thing that federal intervention rather than the marketplace brought this about will be the subject of ferocious debate on the Net for a long while. Maybe this evokes the old adage: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

"There's no question that this lawsuit greatly influenced the company's behavior in the past year or so," a Silicon Valley writer close to Microsoft officials told me Saturday night. "They probably would have bought Amazon or eBay by now, if they weren't distracted or afraid of calling attention to their size or power. Microsoft was slow to get the impact of the Web - this is where all the real action is now - and in this world, if you're taken out of things for a year or so, that's like a generation in the off-line business world. It will be a long time before Microsoft can get aggressive about competing again, especially if they are, as they seem, so determined to fight. In the meantime, they're still making cheap and derivative products that cost pennies and sell for many dollars. That will be their fate for awhile, and they'll do well at it."

Microsoft will be preoccupied for a bit. The Judge's findings were not a final decision in the case. He hasn't yet decided whether Microsoft broke the law, or decided on any possible remedies or punishments (which could range from a forced break-up, a la AT&T, to fines or rebates to wronged competitors or consumers). There are sure to be a raft of lawsuits if the Judge follows through on his initial instincts and declares that the company broke anti-trust laws). Nineteen states joined in the federal government's suit against Microsoft, all of them drooling over a potentially favorable verdict.

Judge Jackson's findings were an astonishing series of declarations that made it clear that he didn't believe a word Microsoft's executives and lawyers had been telling him for nearly a year.

The government's version of events, he said - that Microsoft sought to monopolize markets, destroy competitors, put consumers at an unfair advantage - were true, almost in their entirety. There was not one finding that Microsoft could point to as favorable or hopeful to their case.

This brutal declaration was so completely at odds with mainstream journalism's long-running adoration of the man and his company that media consumers, politicians and investors have every right to be puzzled at the disparity between the Gates they've been reading about and seeing on TV and the man Judge Jackson has dramatically re-defined.

Thebitterness and elation expressed by Microsoft's competitors was almost unnerving. Fear and resentment towards Microsoft has been building and festering for so long the bloodlust was almost mob-like. [ this weekend demonstrated its growing primacy in technology news related to the Net, the Web and computing in general. Its coverage of the Microsoft ruling was quick, thorough and knowing.]

Saturday, Reuters reported that Net chat rooms from Yahoo to were teeming with analysis and discussion about the ruling, little of it sympathetic to Microsoft.

"Hallelujah!," exulted Ransome Love, chief executive of Linux operating system-seller Caldera.

As exciting as it was to see a federal judge smack Microsoft around, it's also tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if nature had been permitted to take its own course. Even though Judge Jackson's findings read at times like an open-source manifesto, OS advocates seemed a bit stung that Judge Jackson dissed the movement, saying he didn't consider Linux a serious competitive threat to Microsoft.

As happy as they were with his opinions, OS champions were also clearly disappointed that they weren't the ones who get to bring Microsoft to its knees without federal judicial help, something they're confident they would eventually have done.

Net libertarians also worried that the ruling legitimized the idea that the government needs to step in and regulate the Internet. History suggests they have good for concern. Judge Jackson's ruling was, in fact, by far the most significant and far-reaching intrusion into Net commerce by a federal authority, and represents a landmark judicial effort to begin writing Net law.

That could have lots of implications. Judge Jackson wasn't just curbing the power of a company, he was also seeking to redefine anti-trust law as it applies to commerce online.

And he was definitely plowing new ground. Traditionally, companies have gotten into anti-trust trouble when their monopolies become so vast they monopolize products and goods, prevent competition and innovation, and unfairly control and drive up the price consumers pay for those products. That was the rationale behind one of the first landmark anti-trust rulings, the one that broke up Standard Oil, and behind the decision that dispersed AT&T.

Net commerce works in very different ways, yet anti-trust law hasn't evolved. Microsoft didn't become a monopoly by jacking up prices, but by using practically the opposite tactic - in effect giving products away to obtain staggering market share. Gate's big idea was to make sure his company's software and operating systems were distributed so freely and aggressively they were on every desktop.

Once there, Microsoft could sell ancillary products forever, and play their primacy off against consumers as well as other companies. You can't buy Microsoft Word any longer, for example, without buying Microsoft Office. As Microsoft's operating systems controlled more than 90 per cent of the world's PCs, the company made billions by charging for related, bundled, updated or connected products. Judge Jackson is suggesting that this tactic - unique to the Net - may be monopolistic, thus illegal.

In addition, Microsoft protected this market share, according to Judge Jackson's findings, by ruthlessly buying, bullying or stamping out competitors and potential competitors. That's also against the law when done on so grand a scale.

This could conceivably be written off as old-fashioned, bare-knuckles competiveness. That the company refused to acknowledge such practices, and repeatedly misled a federal judge about them in a trial court, takes the case into another realm. In a way, this rattles investigators and regulators more than the accusations of monopolistic practices. It speaks not only to a manner of doing business, but to a willful refusal to accept responsibility or accept any authority but that of Bill Gates.

Judge Jackson's Third Finding of Fact: 'Through its conduct toward Netscape, I.B.M., Compaq, Intel and others, Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft's core products. Microsoft's past success in hurting such companies and stifling innovation deters investment in technologies and business that exhibit the potential to threaten Microsoft.'

Still, it would be premature to do too much gloating. Concerns about whether the marketplace should ultimately have been permitted to make its own findings of fact are troubling.

If the explosive growth of networked computing - the rise of the PC, the Net, the Web, e-commerce - has proven anything about government, it's that real innovation takes place far from regulators, bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians. The Internet was initially sparked by government-funded research, but began to take off once government got out of the picture.

When it comes to the Net, Congress mostly seems to legislate lunacy. It has never shown the slightest inclination to intelligently consider the many serious policy issues raised by the rapid growth of the network, instead passing block-headed decency acts and fussing about sex online.

It's hard not to notice that the computing and software industries, the Net and the Web, all began growing so explosively at a time when Wall Street, government and journalism were paying almost no attention.

The Web's stunning take-off in the past few years is almost a textbook case of how a creative environment can flourish when it's left alone. Innovators, programmers and entrepreneurs were free to think outside the regulatory, cultural and commercial boxes that dominate American business and culture. Judge Jackson's ruling may mark the end of that period as well as the beginning of the Post-Microsoft Era.

Even though the judge dismissed them as still-marginal, powerful and resilient techno-movements like Linux and open source ("I think he underestimates the competitive threat of Linux," OS advocate Eric Raymond told Salon Friday) were already nibbling away at the monolith from one end.

Raymond may be right.

This year Compaq, Dell and HP all started shipping computers with Linux instead of Windows NT. International Data Corp. estimated Linux's server market share at 17.2 per cent this year, about half that for Windows NT. This year, a number of prestigious companies, colleges and universities, along with Southwestern Bell's network-monitoring center in Kansas City, switched to Linux, which Business Week earlier this year called "Microsoft's Vietnam."

Culturally, the Web has roared past Redmond. So-called "" ads flood commercial TV. Mp3s transformed the way music is distributed and sold in America. Ebay has legitimized the notion of global shopping and retailing. George Lucas's "Phantom Menace" was initially marketed and promoted on the Net. "The Blair Witch Project" showed that the Web can now, under certain circumstances, make a movie a hit. Earlier this year, online "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" fans rebelled over the WB's post-Columbine decision to delay the show's season finale. The video and transcript was all soon over the Web. These events all heralded the fusion of the Web with the entertainment industry. In fact, entertainment has become the primary consumer use on the Net, followed by e-trading, e-commerce, sports and sex.

Microsoft is not at the center of any of these critical evolutions. Of all the countless sound bites, opinions, and interpretations pouring online and off in the media all weekend, one stood out. It was from Tim O'Reilly, the CEO of computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates, who said: "The frontier of innovation has moved beyond the sphere that Microsoft controls. I think there is more competition for Microsoft than there has ever been."

One of the many questions journalism ought to be asking in the wake of the Microsoft shock is how it managed to award Bill Gates so much space, print and videotape - he was on the cover of almost every news and business magazine in America, usually multiple times - and completely misrepresent his essential character, goals and philosophy.

More significantly, how did so many journalists miss the brutally, perhaps illegally competitive nature of his company?

Bill Gates had some prescient, even brilliant ideas about controlling the computer desktop. But was he ever really a visionary?

This is, after all, a man who never once mentioned the Internet in his first best-seller, "The Road Ahead," and who concluded his latest best-selling book, Business@The Speed Of Thought with this soulless admonition: "The next steps, which can happen project by project, are to connect these knowledge systems with existing business operations systems, to build new business systems on the new architecture, and, over time, to replace older business systems."

Now it's Jackson's ruling that's a sure bet to grace the covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News&World Report, as well as a host of business and computing trade publications.

In public this weekend, Gates was conciliatory and statesman-like. In private, he was reported to be enraged and defiant. That might be expected from a man who's spent untold millions building a vast, digitally-controlled mansion and who acquired many of the personal notes, diaries and sketches of both Leonardo DaVinci and Napoleon.

Microsoft will almost surely continue to make billions peddling cheap, generally mediocre software products for many times what it's worth to people who now have little choice but to buy and use it.

But all this proves is that in this sphere, it's possible to be enormously rich and successful and still rapidly become marginal, even insignificant. This seems to be Microsoft's curious fate.

If Gates stood for anything the past few years, it may be the looming confrontation between individualism and corporatism so perfectly embodied by the past and present history of the Net.

The Net was founded by individualists - hackers, scientists, engineers, gurus, hippies, academics, teenaged oddballs and social innovators. Increasingly, they find themselves - as so many Americans do - at odds with vast, predatory, innately greedy corporations, with Microsoft by far the most enduring and visible symbol.

It's not that such companies are evil - corporations can't be evil any more than they can be moral. It's that they inevitably, as the writer John Raulston Saul once put it in his book "The Unconscious Civilization," cause us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as a free and dignified citizen in a given sphere, time or place. The pervasive effects of corporatism on the individual, warns Saul, are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don't.

Microsoft and its founder have stood not for innovation, but for the acquisition of other's innovations; not for the free dissemination of information but for domination of the market for information that's disseminated. Meanwhile, millions of computer users have struggled through mediocre and buggy software, paying significant sums for simple programs they may or may not need while being deprived of the incalculable benefits that might have come from silenced, bought out or intimidated innovators whose ideas never came to light.

Those traits aren't unique to Microsoft. Corporatism is perhaps the dominant and most noxious ideology of our time. Confrontations between individualism and corporatism may well be the primary political struggles of the 21st century.

This conflict now moves onto the Net.

Corporatism online comes into almost head-on collision with the individualistic traditions that comprise the Net's most enduring tradition, from its earliest hackers to the programmers patching together the open source and free software movements.

It's hard to feel much sympathy for a man as arrogant or rich as Bill Gates, but one can't spend the last few days, poring through newspapers, trawling through websites and watching almost dependably mindless TV talk shows without thinking there's something tragic about Gates, Microsoft and the fading Microsoft Era.

Reading and re-reading Judge Jackson's blistering indictment of the world's biggest corporation, it's impossible not to wonder what might have happened if a corporation like Microsoft had been free to transcend itself, to really step outside the conventional corporate box.

As it stands, Gates' legacy has just been written by Judge Jackson, but it could have been radically different. Think of the software a company with $22 billion in the bank (Gates himself has close to $50 billion, at least as of this morning) might have created, the advances it could have made in information technology.

Imagine the computers it could have given away, the schools it could have equipped, the tech support it could have provided to the millions of newcomers struggling to get connected, the innovations it could have funded, the programming codes it could have shared, the small, struggling entrepeneurs it could have fostered rather than squash.

In this sense, Gates becomes an almost Shakespearean figure and, indirectly at least, a tragic one.

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The Post-Microsoft Era

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"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." -- The Wizard Of Oz