Kearns' column: The help we really need

The Microsoft antitrust case is still far from over, but most pundits have decided that Microsoft will lose. Having finished playing "You Be the Judge," the commentators are now playing "What's the Penalty?" Suggestions range from huge fines to a breakup of the Redmond behemoth.

Instead of speculating about legal issues, let's talk about government supervision of the computer industry. What could something like a Federal Computer Commission do to help consumers?

It could create a standard warranty for software and hardware overriding the ridiculous nonwarranty now used in most software licences: "Microsoft expressly disclaims any warranty for the software product. The software product and any related documentation is provided 'as is' without warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including, without limitation, the implied warranties or merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, or noninfringement. The entire risk arising out of use or performance of the software product remains with you." The warranty could specify that, at a minimum, the product should perform as advertised and as outlined in its manual and help files.

The commission could also set a standard for consequential damages. For example, if your software crashes my server, then you, the software vendor, are liable. Maybe we could have an independent panel oversee computer certification programs. Requirements would include a demonstrated proficiency with the product on which the user is being certified, not just the ability to give rote answers to questions.

But the one thing I'd really like to see is an official crash test for hardware and software products, similar to that used for cars. The results would be published so everyone could see which vendors provided the most reliable products. Seeing where Microsoft products rank on the list could go a long way towards reducing the company's monopoly of desktop operating systems.

Or perhaps Bill Gates will go on television, apologise for his inappropriate activities, then claim it was all about sex, and it's a private issue between Melinda and himself. The American public would claim to be satisfied, and the whole thing would just go away as we got on with the business of America. And "reset" would still be the button you were most familiar with on the front of your crash-prone Windows computer.

Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at wired@vquill.com

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