SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - Amazing things can happen when you take some time off to welcome a new member of the family. In my case, the arrival of Matthew Joseph seems to have coincided with a radical shift in the political landscape.
In fact, a month ago it seemed this country was dedicated to the concept of a government that was based on being for the people and by the people. Today you have to wonder if, in the wake of the remedies proposed by the government to rein in Microsoft, the guiding principle of government applies to some corporate entities more than others.
Regardless of whether you loathe or love Microsoft Corp., there are so many troubling aspects to the proposed remedies that you can't help but wonder if this is a classic case in which the proposed cure is worse than the ailment.
Although the attorneys general like to talk about how they consulted economists, Microsoft rivals, and Microsoft customers, the word customer in this instance only refers to the PC makers that buy software from Microsoft, not the companies and end-users that use it when they buy those PCs.
For instance, the proposal to break Microsoft into two companies is probably going to result in the creation of two separate monopolies rather than permanently fix anything. The bottom line is that a version of Office for Linux or any other OS is not going to result in a major shift in market share on the desktop any time soon.
What it will most certainly do is introduce years of incompatibilities between Office applications and Windows before any significant economic change comes about. So although breaking up Microsoft sounds like a nice solution, it's based on economic theories that are unlikely to turn into any kind of reality.
In fact, it's likely to do more harm than good if it's your job to deploy and maintain Windows systems.
Meanwhile, the silliest proposal is the one that would prevent Microsoft from taking retaliatory action against companies that testified against it.
What that means is that any time Microsoft looks cross-eyed at a competitor, that company is going to go screaming to regulators. In essence, the proposal is unenforceable, restrains trade, and works against any customer who tries to leverage competition between Microsoft and a rival.
Although the government has an excellent track record with its witness protection program, the creation of a witness protection racket is not a good idea.
In fact, the single biggest problem with the proposed solution is that it requires as much as 10 years of governmental oversight to enforce it. This means that every time either company decides to make a move, it will have to check that move with the government. That level of intervention, which is intended to protect such Microsoft rivals as Novell, Oracle, and Sun, borders on the absurd.
Assuming that you agree that Microsoft has violated the law, the appropriate remedy is one that has the most immediate impact and the smallest possible role for the government.
With that goal in mind, a multibillion dollar fine that would discourage Microsoft or any other company from employing similar tactics, along with requirements that would force Microsoft to fully document its application programming interfaces to level the competitive playing field, would be sufficient.
Of course, this remedy presupposes that U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's ruling will stand, which seems highly unlikely. For starters, the appellate court has already signaled that it doesn't necessarily believe that the browser is a distinct application apart from the operating system.
Moreover, Jackson concludes that Microsoft harmed consumers by not lowering the cost of Windows as aggressively as it could have. That is an extremely liberal interpretation of the law under the Sherman Antitrust Act that is not likely to survive a challenge. And while the Sherman Antitrust Act desperately needs to be updated to deal with these types of issues, it's the place of the legislature, not the judiciary, to accomplish that task.
So at the end of the day, this case is fraught with tenuous arguments that will ultimately be a great disservice to a serious issue, namely how to deal with an overbearing monopoly in the Digital Age.
Unfortunately, it looks like that issue won't be truly dealt with until the year Matthew Joseph graduates college.
Michael Vizard is editor in chief at InfoWorld. Send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.