NS Internet column

The news of the Microsoft court decision came through while I was rebuilding a PC for my daughter to play with, which made it very much easier to understand what Microsoft's monopoly has meant in practice. The machine I was tarting up had cost around 1500 in 1994. It was then a standard business machine, running Windows 3.1, which I those days cost around 100. The replacement parts I was installing cost less than 500: there was a processor five times as powerful as the original, and running eight times as fast. There was eight times as much memory; a hard disk 25 times larger; a CD rom eight times as fast, and so on and so forth. All these improvements cost a third as much as the stuff it was replacing. And then there was Windows 98, still costing what its predecessor had done five years ago, or nearly 100.

Actually, it should have cost more. The copies I have are upgrades from Windows 95, which will not install without checking that Windows 95 has been installed from scratch on the machine. Since I am a journalist, and can ring PR companies for this kind of stuff, I have the required disks. But if I had simply upgraded from Windows 3.1 when 95 came out, as millions of people did, I would have spent 100 for the privilege, only to discover two years later that the Windows 98 disk (another 95) would not install over an earlier upgrade. It demands that you put in each and every one of the 21 floppy disks that Windows 95 came on before it will run. Without them, I would have to buy the full version of Windows 98, for another 140.

This is software, remember. It costs nothing to manufacture. Once the development costs have been recouped, which must have happened a very long time ago, the price is pure gravy. While the hardware in my machine, whose manufacture demands expensive factories, has grown unimaginably faster and more capable, while falling in price by a third, the operating system has actually gone up in price, and grown slower, though rather more capable. There has been nothing like the development in software power and speed that there has been in hardware. That's what monopoly means in practice.

The hardware in my machine is interchangeable between different manufacturers, so that when upgrading I have the choice of five different disk drives, which can all be screwed into the same fitting, and will all do more or less the same job; when it comes to operating systems, it's Microsoft or Linux and Linux won't yet do the things that I need.

Most people of course have no choice, not just because they are not journalists, but because Microsoft is trying to eliminate the sale of free-floating copies of Windows that are not bound to the particular machine they were sold with. Without such a disk I could not have installed an "upgrade". This is an extension of the route by which they got their monopoly: by doing deals with manufacturers so that there is a copy of Windows with every PC sold, irrespective of whether it was used, they ensured that rival operating systems would always cost extra. It also lets them fix things so that upgrading can be made arbitrarily expensive. To the consumer, windows appears to be free with the machine. In fact it's about as free as a mobile telephone. What you are really getting is the obligation to buy it all over again every couple of years.

These weren't the grounds on which the Justice Department sued Microsoft, though they are germane to another lawsuit from a rival company in Utah. The suit in Washington was brought because of the way Microsoft tried to extend this monopoly power from the desktop into the Internet. The mechanism, again, was to give away something which would bind the recipient into a cycle of perpetual upgrades and dependency, though with Internet Explorer the crucial software is not the browser, but the server which produces the pages for browsers to read, which has always cost money. To be fair, this is exactly the same trick as Netscape attempted., But Microsoft succeeded, which was pricier for the rest of us.

Though the Internet is meant to be built on open standards, Microsoft servers and Microsoft browsers can do tricks together which other companies' products just can't manage. They are not particularly good or clever tricks, but if they become sufficiently widespread, they will be irresistible; and the price of the server software need never go down, any more than the price of Windows has. Nor need it get much better at what it does, any more than Windows has. That is why, for all its exasperations, Linux matters and why the anti-trust trial has been such an unequivocally good thing.

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