Net Buzz with Richard Wiggins | 7 | WebReference

Net Buzz with Richard Wiggins | 7


Volume 1, Number 20 March 31, 1998

Windows 98: Why Microsoft Should Prevail


Promoting Innovation As Well As Open Markets

Even if Netscape is right about the threat to their livelihood, this may not be sufficient reason to derail the effort. There is no natural law that says a Web browser ought to exist as a separate, visible application. The very idea of a Web browser is an idea that's just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Maybe instead of asking why the operating system should have Web browsing functionality built in, we should ask why that functionality ought to be a separate application?

There's an analogy with file browsers: back in the days of MS-DOS, lots of vendors offered utilities to help manage the DOS file hierarchy. When Windows finally became viable, many of us found the Windows file management utilities adequate. Those who didn't could still choose products from other vendors to add functionality. But no one would've argued that it was improper or invalid for the Windows operating system to make it easier to find and manage one's files.

Even with browser functionality built into the Windows operating system, there is still room for vendors of databases to make money. Windows '95 provides hooks for vendors of information products to weave functionality into the desktop. For instance, Westlaw integrates their legal databases into the Find button on the Windows 95 startup menu. One can find a file, or one can find a piece of case law, seamlessly. The Windows 98 model simply calls for users to invoke the same user interface to navigate a variety of document spaces.

If we think of the desktop PC as an information appliance instead of as a box with an operating system on it, we want that appliance to be as simple to operate and as consistent across applications as possible. To do this effectively may require intimate integration. If Sun were to make network computers that provide all the functionality users need, how would they react to a complaint from Microsoft that there's no room for Windows on those boxes? They'd laugh all the way to the bank.

To be sure, there's plenty to worry about when one contemplates Microsoft and its various competitors:

  • The market for desktop operating systems that compete with Windows appears stagnant if not shrinking, with Apple's new system share remaining tiny, and with Unix on the desktop always filling no more than a niche role.
  • Competing office productivity applications are losing against MS-Office. Corel and Lotus seem likely to lose even more share in this war
  • Even the server market may be dominated by Microsoft, as Windows NT servers displace Unix servers that displaced mainframes.
  • In the Java Wars, Microsoft appears to be losing some battles - but the campaigns are not spent. Microsoft continues to work to halt the momentum Java, replacing it with ActiveX or incompatible versions of Java.
  • Microsoft appears not to be shy about entering any aspect of electronic commerce, from personal finance to the Expedia online travel agency to online auto referral to city guides to music sold online to…
So there are real questions about market share and the ability of Microsoft to dominate markets and raise prices in every aspect of computing - and perhaps someday in commerce and communications. While those concerns are quite valid, it would be a shame if Microsoft were not allowed to follow the path of operating system innovation they announced two years ago. Antitrust efforts are supposed to keep markets sufficiently free and open, not stifle innovation.

The wrong kind of pursuit of Microsoft could even prove counterproductive. Microsoft claims it is fully embracing XML, and will provide tools to translate from all proprietary formats to and from XML. If they follow through on this promise, the proprietary nature of Microsoft's Office tools could be severely undermined, and a new market could open for new tools to edit, index, and repurpose documents previously locked into Microsoftness.

Justice would be better advised to work out a consent decree with Microsoft, analogous to the one IBM agreed to in the mainframe market. The agreement would require Microsoft to define standard interfaces to its operating system and its browser functions, so that third party firms could develop products exploiting those features on an equal playing field.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Microsoft's Web integration vision is flawed, or that Microsoft's implementation of that vision will be found wanting. If they do too good a job of masking the residency of data, users may become frustrated clicking on a hyperlink to a 20 megabyte multimedia file that resides across a slow link to a remote location. Or users may actually find the hiding of applications to be frustrating; maybe users want to know when Excel is loaded to view a file, as opposed to Acrobat or the native HTML capacity in a Web browser.

The real shame is that the few remaining competitors to Windows on the desktop pose no serious competition. If the Macintosh had 20% share, and Unix systems had 15% share, and network computers had 25% share, Justice would cast its eyes on other problems.



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Created: March 31, 1998
Revised: March 31, 1998

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