Alternative View of the Microsoft MonopolyAs the Microsoft anti-trust trial is set to resume, it is likely that Microsoft will face some form of legal action. The key is that the government has to prove that consumers have been harmed in some way. This is not so clear, and it's even been argued that Microsoft's dominance has even benefited end users by providing a stable marketplace for products to develop without software publishers having to commit needless resources to porting products to multiple platforms. However, these arguments have all focused on the direct economic benefits and losses that consumers have received from this situation. It is not economic losses that the public has suffered, but loss of choice.
Microsoft's domination has limited the axes of competition to one variable, the ability to work with others on the creation of documents. It has not achieved this from a monopoly in operating systems but a monopoly in application file formats. With this understanding, it makes the charges of Microsoft abusing it's monopoly position in the browser market irrelevant. So it's clear what legal action should be taken by the government to create an open market in software. I come to these conclusion from my own personal experiences and that's a good place to start.
As I sit here composing this essay, I am surrounded by three computers and let me explain why. People purchase computers to perform certain using software applications, and I am no different, except that I may be a little more techno savvy than others. I have an Apple Macintosh Powerbook that I prefer to use for doing my writing work because it allows me to concentrate on my writing and not the computer. A fairly common claim about the Macintosh, and I am going to leave that at face value because it is my experience, and for me that's all that matters. I also have a machine that is running the increasingly popular open-source operating system Linux. I use this operating system because it the most stable and affordable operating system that meets my needs as a web publisher and programmer. Lastly, this brings me to my machine running Windows95. I often receive files from others that I have to read, comment and edit. And more times than not, they are Microsoft Office documents. The best way and until recently the only way to read Office97 documents is using Microsoft Office on Windows. Given my choice and convenience, I use other easier, more stable alternatives for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations when I know that I am the only one who will be reading them. Unfortunately, most of the time that is not the case. So I possess what I consider this extra machine, because I have to do something as basic commenting on a memo. This is the sole reason I continue to have in my possession a Windows machine. Finally, the other major task that I do is web surfing, and surprisingly, I find all three platforms acceptable for that task. So I in effect have no choice but to run Office97, and hence Windows95 and to understand why this is, one has to understand the transformation that occurred in the last 10 years in how we create, manipulate and exchange information. Since the creation of movable type and the printing press nearly five centuries ago, we have not fundamentally changed the way that we work with information. Gutenberg triggered a revolution by enabling the mass production and distribution of information. A more recent minor leap occurred with photocopying which enabled mass publication without the necessity of typesetting. Both these technological leaps involved improving the way we work with the underlying medium of information, which is paper, not words. Paper enabled distribution of ideas and its hegemony in every stage of information creation has been unchallenged until now.
The major application of computers is word processing. Word processing is not about efficiency, but about enabling non-specialists the ability to create finished documents. Word processing is more correctly called document processing.
Historically when someone created information in the form of a memo, a play or an accounting log, she would use pen and paper and create in long hand. This paper would then be handed to a secretary who would transform this into a distributable form by typing it out. A secretary was used because she could reliably and quickly do this. Secretaries were in effect specialists in using a typewriter. Not much different from a concert pianist in the precision and flawlessness required. Word processing changed that, because the person running the keyboard no longer had to execute flawlessly. The computer tolerated the introduction of errors by delaying the final output. Word processors made it safe for idea creators to create not only ideas, but documents as well. All without the assistance of secretaries and delivered the final kiss of death to the typing pool. This ability to manipulate the final product is what human interface specialists call direct manipulation. The actual process may not have become more efficient -- I am a slower typist than most, but it enabled it to be more direct. But the target has always the same, a well formatted document on paper.
To further emphasize how important paper was in our conception of documents, the importance of the Graphical User Interface or GUI was not ease of use, but in the fact that the computer screen was true to its eventual appearance on paper. WYSIWYG -- "What You See is What You Get" should have really been called WYSIWYGOP, "What You See is What You Get On Paper." It was this fidelity in desktop publishing that gave the Macintosh its foothold into the prepress business.
Word processors may have initially simplified the creation of documents, but it did not immediately change the method of distribution and the revision of documents. These processes still took place on paper. A typical scenario was you would use the computer to create a manual, print out a draft and make photocopies for distribution. Others would then make comments and edits on these copies and return them to you. At which point you would make these changes on the computer. An especially comedic situation was that someone would type a letter using a word processor, printed it out, send it using a fax machine and once it was received on the other end, retype it into another computer. This situation did not change until the advent of cheap removable media and computer data networks.
The edit and revision process slowly transformed when people started passing floppy disks around, and later through the use of e-mail. In both cases, the actual data file was being exchanged and now editors and reviewers also engaged in direct manipulation. Data networks accelerated this sharing of information and finally intruded into publishing. No longer was it necessary for one to actually print out a document if one didn't want to. Once display technologies improve to match the resolution of paper, paper's hegemony will end except for long term archival purposes.
Paper has been replaced by the computer data file, but more specifically the Microsoft Office document. Word for word processing, Excel for spreadsheets and Powerpoint for presentations. This is the paper of our new age. When computers were used as instruments of creation and publishing, it was less important what program was used as long as the final product was on paper. But today the digital file serves this purpose. It would be ridiculous if you had to buy paper that required you to use a special pen to write on it, but that is exactly what happens today.
How Microsoft became the new paper standard is akin to the random events that lead to VHS becoming the standard for VCRs. One who has gets, gets and gets some more. Microsoft's initial aggressive marketing, bundling and discounting of its Office Suite led to a clear dominant position. This path dependency lead to dominance. Microsoft did in fact earn its riches through old fashion solid marketing, and has benefited from the spoils.
Today in the U.S., you cannot be an effective part of the information economy if you are unable to read a Microsoft Office document. It is for this reason, that when people buy computers for home, they buy what they have at the office. One has to have the ability to manipulate and read the documents they create and receive at work. Steve Jobs realized Apple would not have a chance if it a parity version of Office did not exist for the Macintosh. The importance of this commitment is under appreciated with respect to Apple's resurrection.
To understand how important file formats are, let's take a look at where another file format has emerged and not fallen to Microsoft and why -- the World Wide Web. Earlier I mentioned that I use all three of my computers almost equally well to surf the internet. The reason is that each of these machines has browsers which able to render and display web documents that are in a format known as the Hyper Text Markup Language or HTML. The conventional wisdom is that HTML is inter-operable because it is a public standard. This is only half of the truth. During the great browser war of the early 90s both Netscape and Microsoft tried to co-opt HTML by creating proprietary extensions. This resulted in a lot of web pages which would not display properly because they contained extensions which the competitor's browsers could not interpret correctly. The critical point is that the document was not displayed properly as opposed to not being displayed at all. In most cases, the relevant information is available to the reader. Compare this to the case where one receives a Word97 document by e-mail and does not have Word97; one is simply out of luck.
This information availability is a result of a quirk in the way the HTML language is specified and defined. In HTML, directives to the browsers in how to display a piece of text are sent in instructions contained in angle brackets. For example "" tells the browser to display all text following in bold until an off directive is encountered in the form of . These directives are known as "tags." What is brilliant is that if a browser encounters a tag that it does not understand, it is instructed to ignore that tag and continue to display the text as it has been. So when Netscape introduced a new tag that Microsoft's Internet Explorer did not understand, it did its best to display the remaining HTML. So the page was defective, not inoperable. This also means that HTML is by definition un-cooptable. Anyone can introduce a new tag into their web documents and this will not prevent others from reading the document, only the likelihood of them viewing it properly. HTML is unique in that it is mostly forward compatible as far as relevant data is concerned. The presence of standards is not sufficient to prevent bad behavior from companies, but a standard that cannot lock others out is necessary for a competitive marketplace. HTML can be broken but not crippled. A side point is that HTML was specified in ASCII which is a lowest common denominator encoding format open to all.
So it is clear that there can and will be real competition and choices in browsers, the same cannot be said for applications that can read Office documents. If I have another word processor I cannot generally view a document in the latest Word format. This even applies if I have an older version of Word. To work with the majority I am forced to upgrade or change. To see how critical the file format issue, let's look at some other markets where Microsoft does not dominate. Let's start with the aforementioned browser market which is very healthy relative to the office applications market. It supports two major players and many niche players successfully. Recently Microsoft became the market leader in the browser market, but it does not own the market in the same way it owns the office productivity market. It no more owns the browser market than the Republicans currently own Congress. If you look at the server market which makes up the infrastructure of the internet. For web servers, Linux and Apache are the market leaders, yet Microsoft and Netscape still have thriving businesses in this segment. This is the case because what is exchanged between computers is HTML. It doesn't matter who serves it up. The same applies to the back end database market, most data returned and stored in databases is ASCII and there is little interchange between them. Because of this Oracle, IBM and Microsoft and a school of smaller competitors are fighting it out in this market giving consumers a choice.
Lastly, let's look at the segment where Linux has risen to great popularity, the market niche of programmers and system administrators. These people tend to work independently and do not need to create documents in Microsoft Office and hence have no need to have a Windows machine. Now this is not to say that programmers and systems administrators do not use Windows, there are those who do. But most choose a system for other reasons such as stability, cost or scalability. Document compatibility is not an issue. At a major company I know, most of the programmers prefer using an operating system known as Unix, but they still have two machines at their desks. A Unix machine for doing their primary job, and a Windows machine to read and send documents to people outside of the programming community.
In every other segment, Microsoft does not dominate the market because in every other segment, the medium of interoperability is different. Web servers are a fragmented market, mail servers are a fragmented market, web browsers are a fragmented market and databases are a fragmented market. People have choices to perform these functions using alternatives which emphasizes the features that are important to them be it stability, ease of use, cost of ownership, supportability or whatever. However because the primary task of most computer users is document creation, people purchase Windows to work with others because they must run Office.
If this insight is correct, what can the government do to restore competitiveness to the software market? I believe there is a less draconian step than those being bandied around. The first step requires Microsoft to open up their document formats in sufficient detail such that others can create applications which can read Office documents flawlessly. Second, require Microsoft to publish all changes in these file formats six months in advance of any new release to allow competitors to update their products to read and write these new formats. The terms of this information can either be gratis or a reasonable licensing agreement. Third, Justice should oversee Microsoft's pricing practices, if there is one thing to be learned from what happened to internet browsers is that Microsoft is willing to engage in predatory pricing to drive out competitors. Even with open formats, very few organizations have as much cash on hand as Microsoft and are unlikely to last long in a price war. In an information economy, the medium of exchange is too important to be allowed to be controlled by one company, and until something web centralized is created, most information will be created and exchanged in Microsoft Office. The standard arguments to this proposal are the following. First, HTML is becoming the standard and that the marketplace will take over. This is faulty in that HTML is insufficient to accurately render paper documents, and the new XML standard is more concerned with data representation than with presentation. Others have pointed to Adobe's PDF or Portable Document Format to handle rendering, but it is a publishing format, not a creation format and definitely not an editing format.
Others counter that there exist conversion programs which allow you to use any program you choose. Unfortunately, these are usually reverse engineered solutions that are incomplete. Often the data is manipulated because the end product does not support a certain feature. Additionally the time delay to produce the converter after the introduction of a new format by Microsoft means that most people will not wait and deal with the inconvenience as their vendor upgrades their product. Lastly, there is the argument that Microsoft Office is available on the Macintosh, but the response is so laughably obvious in who provides that. History has also shown that Office for the Macintosh is usually not a parity version, that its release is behind that of the Windows version and generally available only at a higher cost than the Windows version. It also begs the question of conflict of interest for Microsoft to jeopardize its other businesses. A cynical view is that Microsoft's production of Office for Macintosh is more an effort to hold off anti-trust action than a sincere effort to grow a market.
Non-technological arguments include that the government has no right in defining the features and formats that are the basis for competition and innovation. In response, the government has historically imposed guidelines and standards when interchange is involved. This is no different from the government defining what gauge railroad tracks. And today, there is no other dominant form of interchange that is more unregulated than the Microsoft data formats.
This is a less drastic solution than forcing Microsoft to give up its source code or breaking Microsoft into applications and operating systems divisions. The latter does no good anyway, if the premise that interoperability of documents is the most important driver of computer choice. This will only result in two new monopolies at two new levels, especially if the applications division writes Office only for Windows.
So this proposal addresses market concerns, and shifts the market emphasis away from file formats which lock users, to other areas which are more beneficial to users. Computers are rightly disparaged for being too unreliable and too hard to use. Unfortunately, there are products which address these issues, but for most people are not acceptable because they need to be able to work with others at the document level. Hence the choice is either own multiple computers, or accept what Microsoft gives us. Most individuals and companies do not have the financial resources or time to do the former, so the majority accept the latter -- even if it means tolerating that stupid paper clip. The personal computer market has often been compared to the VCR war between VHS and Beta. But the focus of the analogy has been faulty, the correct format comparison is not between Macintosh and DOS/Windows, but in Office applications vs. everyone else. If I go to a consumer electronics store, I have a choice in VCRs which can all play VHS. Unfortunately, I do not have the same choice when "playing" Office documents. We live in an economy driven by the creation and exchange of information, and for any one company to own the format of the dominant format of interchange forces us to accept whatever that one company gives us. Doesn't seem like much choice to me.