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Opinion

Breaking Up Microsoft Hurts the Consumer–Instead, Make the Company Provide Free Tech Support

by Tom Bunzel (tbunzel@wwwiz.com)

           I am a freelance technology writer and professional trainer–having taught ``Integrating Microsoft Office" for Learning Tree International. I have also written extensively about multimedia, with a book titled, ``Digital Video on the PC," published by Micro Publishing Press in 1997.

First of all let me say that I have no great affection for Microsoft software; I hate rebooting Windows as frequently as it requires and I may hold the record for having reinstalled the Windows operating system. I also own a small number of shares of Microsoft stock.

          That Microsoft has engaged in shady, anti-competitive behavior is without question–and sanctions against the company and steps to prevent the recurrence of such tactics should be imposed if warranted.

          But it seems to me that breaking up the software company is a blatantly stupid idea, precisely because those most hurt by such a move would be the individual computer user who has gotten the most benefit of out of having affordable computer power at his or her disposal.

          Large corporations with IT departments could probably handle the issues raised by suddenly incompatible operating systems, Web browsers and business applications. In many cases, they would simply leave well enough alone and not upgrade to post-Windows NT products, sparing themselves headaches and stifling growth in the technology arena–and irreparably hurting the U.S. economy and impeding innovation.

          To understand the truth of this, one needs only to look around at the number of corporate environments still running DOS or Word Perfect 5.1 because ``they work fine."  Large-scale operations that need to ramp up state-of-the-art e-commerce applications would still need to innovate and experiment with new software, but if a host of incompatible ad hoc operating systems and business suites were foisted upon the software market, large companies would simply stand technologically pat.

          Small business owners and consumers, however, hunger for new software and constitute the ``early adopters" in the technology area. 

Already, it is nearly impossible to obtain decent tech support from competent sources at affordable prices. Think about a scenario where the software manufacturer cannot only blame the hardware maker, but also the operating system, the Web browser, rival software companies that adhere to no single standard and a host of peripheral manufacturers with no incentive to conform to a particular operating system.

          Such a time existed in the not too distant past. It was called DOS.

          If anyone remembers multimedia under DOS, it was a nightmare. Every soundcard and graphics card had competing drivers that conflicted with another peripheral in the system. Each computer game loaded software that rendered a previous version of digital video useless, and had different memory configurations that either crashed the system or made other programs inoperable.

          This nightmare reached its nadir during the height of CD-ROMS. With Windows 95, Microsoft imposed a set of multimedia standards on the IBM platform that actually made telephony, multimedia, business applications, Internet and a TV tuner, among many other things, coexist relatively peacefully. (Now, you only have to reboot once or twice a day to eliminate the bugs and conflicts.)

          In an analogy that speaks to the intent of the government's anti-trust case, Microsoft became the Genghis Khan of the computer world, uniting the tribes of multimedia and business and making the personal computer work–most of the time. Not surprisingly hostile tribes were unwelcome to the banquet and got the dregs of the hunt–no one questions that the business tactics of the behemoth were Hun-like.

          With the Internet, the playing field and the stakes expanded exponentially; the world became literally a giant network. Clearly it is in the nation's and the world's interests to hold in check any company's ability to completely dominate and dictate standards in this arena. But without certain standards, like the TC/P IP protocol, the Internet couldn't function. And it's true Microsoft tried to co-opt Java and derail Netscape.

But you know what–that's business. Apple didn't invent the graphical user interface; it finagled it from XEROX. IBM could have licensed DOS by itself. Currently it would behoove us to look closely at AOL's ability to control access to the broadest of potential Internet pipes–the cable system. That Microsoft leverages its intimate knowledge of its operating system into a more versatile and useful browser and suite of business applications is better for the consumer and simply good business.

          Let's look at some specific examples from the user's perspective.

          Take, for example, Outlook, the messaging component in Microsoft Office. It is kludgy and annoying like the whole Office suite for the same reason that most of Windows can sometimes be frustrating–it tries to do a lot of stuff.

          Sometimes it simply hangs–sometimes it won't even close–and no one, even in Redmond, can probably tell you precisely why.

          But its competitors do a fraction of what Outlook does. There are calendars and schedulers but without email. There is email, but without remote access or fax. There is contact management, but without programmability or grouping or categories. Outlook does it all and that it works–ever–is a minor miracle. The point is: If the developers of Outlook didn't have access to the guts of the operating system, I shudder to think if it would ever work at all.

          And for all of its problems–it is great software. From one location you can send email, sort contacts by categories and schedule meetings with shared calendars.

          Oh, yes, to do all of this you must currently be on a Microsoft network. If you go to a competitor, all of these marvelous capabilities are no longer available. And they basically work because Microsoft provides either Windows or NT for the user. This is a bad idea?  I think not.

          I like having groupware that works, mass scheduling, email that accepts faxes and a contact manager that handles categories and file folders efficiently.

          Take Internet Explorer, the Web browser that has captured market share because it is integrated with the operating system. I like having its Favorites show up as folders that integrate with my operating system's directory structure.  It helps me manage my Web sites better than ``bookmarks."

          I like going right to a Web site with a shortcut from inside a document or from my ``active desktop"–it's easier than opening a browser window each time.

          And most important, with security being what it is and my personal RAM starting to fade, I like the fact that Explorer accesses a password list protected by the operating system. It remembers my favorite sites, my passwords, and even my most frequently-used keystrokes from other programs (Word and Excel) to finish the URLs of Web sites and addresses before I need to key them in.

          Best example–without integration, I couldn't use a single keystroke to dial the Web, open my browser and collect my email. And I couldn't use my word processor and its stored keystrokes and fonts to write my email.

          These are all innovations that Microsoft uses to keep users loyal and make competitors cringe. But they all help consumers immensely. 

          And if they didn't work with separate components, whom would I blame or call to correct the problem?

          Critics complain that there is so little software for rival operating systems or computers–Apple folks take particular umbrage.  You know what, tough!

          Why does a Mac modem cost four times its Windows counterpart?  Ditto the printer and the CD-ROM. You can't build a Mac yourself, much less for $350, but you can get a working Windows computer at about that price. That's democratic.

          Think different?  How about think affordable?

          For all of its supposed heavy handedness, Microsoft has opened its operating systems to rival application developers. As a matter of fact, I don't even know of an Apple Developers' Network. The MSDN is huge.

          IBM PCs outsell Apples 9 to 1.  Why? Maybe it's because they've been an open architecture since Day 1. It's the software, stupid.

          All of Microsoft's major rivals have programs that work inside of Windows. They are recognized by the operating system and each other as registered component objects. I can import an Adobe Photoshop, Apple Quicktime or Lotus Smart Suite file as a Windows object into a Microsoft program, or one of its rivals–and vice versa. They all crash with equal frequency. But they also work with each other a lot of the time.

          The programming language under Microsoft Office is available to all of its rivals–Corel uses it to crash Word Perfect.  More important, individual users have adapted it to program their own versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, creating their own toolbars and menus.

          It makes it possible to customize Microsoft Outlook in ways that make it far more functional, and yes, with Visual Basic programming, it freezes even more often.

          Why isn't this programming capability available in the Mac version of Office? Ask Steve Jobs.

          As the Internet becomes device-driven and Java and Linux expand, Microsoft will have its hands full to keep up. As a small aside, it will be interesting to see whether the most crash prone software in the world, Corel, will do better outside of Windows, with its own version of Linux to support it. My guess, after seeing it crash on the Sun/Java platform two COMDEXes ago, is–get ready to reboot Linux.

          The bottom line isn't that Microsoft is a benign entity–far from it.  The company competes hard, which is the American way. And where it has been unfair or done anything illegal, sanctions are certainly warranted.

          But I doubt that the politicians and lawyers behind the Microsoft decision personally use computers very much–their secretaries and kids are probably more proficient with the Web and with Windows.

          And in many cases, guys in suits have free tech support–it's called an IT department. 

Think about this: If you moved to a new neighborhood, would you rather buy a house where the same crooked contractor built the kitchen, the entertainment center and put in the wiring, or would you rather leave it all to a lot of different crooked contractors?

          For those of us who surf, do our own typing and handle our own correspondence, whether running a business or just having fun, it is preferable to have a fighting chance at a single source for tech support, even if that phone number in Redmond never answers. 

          The best way to punish Microsoft and help the consumer is not to break up the company, but to force it to provide free, competent tech support and a user manual that the average person can understand. If the politicians really want to force the issue, I recommend a Computer Bill of Rights–Article I: the right to free 24-hour tech support for mass-market software.

          And the same goes for Oracle, IBM, Sun and Apple–let them think different.

Regarding Microsoft, the way I figure it, at least if they're all still part of the same ``crooked contractor," all those smart people might eventually get it right. If they can't even legally talk to each other, that's just plain stupid.

Then, the average computer user won't stand a chance. 

Let them collude, plot, leverage and manipulate like any other red blooded American business, as long as they can make the stuff work in my home or office, or go broke trying.

 

Tom Bunzel works as ``Painless PC," a consulting and training facility in West Los Angeles, specializing in business, presentation and web-authoring applications.  He can be reached at (310) 286-0969 or tom.bunzel@painlesspc.com.

 

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