Who owns the desktop?

Who owns the desktop? By Andrew Leonard. Microsoft and the Department of Justice stake their claims to the ultimate information battleground: the user interface.


Andrew Leonard
May 19, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Who controls the desktop -- the interface where computer and user meet? If you believe the Department of Justice, Microsoft is in charge -- anti-competitively and to the detriment of the general public. By ruthlessly controlling what you see from the moment you turn your computer on, Microsoft, claims the Justice Department, is unfairly gaining an advantage over its competitors.

Microsoft, of course, denies the accusations. Not only do the computer manufacturers who install Microsoft's operating systems on their hardware enjoy "complete freedom to display the icons of any competitor's product right on the Windows desktop," but users themselves can alter the interface's presentation in any way they please, any time they choose.

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Welcome to today's foremost computing battleground: All the big guns are pointed at the user interface, and favorable "icon placement" is the order of the day. It's a war wreaking havoc with the ideals of interface design, say specialists in human-computer interaction.

The user interface should be as helpful, easy to use and consumer-empowering as possible, they argue. But today, such goals conflict with economic imperatives. As the desktop increasingly becomes the gateway to the entire info-universe, corporate fortunes rise and fall according to the intricacies of interface layout and design. And no one understands this new reality better than Microsoft.

Endless, personalizable reconfigurability is a key part of the appeal of the modern graphical user interface's desktop. The debut of Windows 95 sabotaged that ideal by littering the desktop with icons that were difficult to remove, and inserting garish "splash screens" that emblazon the Windows logo across every inch of monitor real estate. The truth, says one Windows watcher, is that Microsoft's best interest lies in ensuring that everyone have the same, Microsoft-controlled experience.

"Microsoft's strategy is not necessarily based on making [Windows] easy to use, or easy to reconfigure," says David Karp, the author of "Windows Annoyances," a book designed to help Windows users circumvent irritating Windows peculiarities. He cites Microsoft's new "channel bar" -- a guide to Web sites placed prominently on the desktop. "They want to give everybody the same experience because they are making deals with companies like Disney and NBC to sell spots on the channel bar. If people can easily change the channel bar, then it isn't worth as much and they can't make as much money."

According to Ben Shneiderman, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland, the struggle for control of the user interface is what fuels the conflict between Microsoft and its opponents.

"The tension is between those who believe that Microsoft should be allowed to control and get whatever it wants," says Shneiderman, "and those who believe that Microsoft has become too powerful a force to be left to do as it wishes."

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In the "memorandum of the United States in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction," the Department of Justice alleges that in June 1996, Compaq attempted to remove the Internet Explorer icon from the default desktop. Microsoft swiftly threatened to terminate Compaq's Windows 95 licenses, says the memorandum, and Compaq soon relented.

The Compaq incident has been widely reported. But the Justice Department's court filings take the issue much further. The DOJ charges that "OEMs [original equipment manufacturers -- the computer hardware companies that license Windows 95 for installation in new computers] cannot remove folders or icons from the Windows desktop, cannot create icons or folders larger than those placed by Microsoft on the desktop, and cannot alter the boot-up sequence by, for instance, presenting an OEM-created screen or 'shell' that would highlight a choice of Internet browsers or the OEM's own Internet offerings. Microsoft's restrictions mean that virtually every new PC will present the same screens and the same set of Microsoft-dictated software -- including Microsoft's browser -- to new users when they first turn the machine on, regardless of which OEM built it and what other choices that OEM wanted to make."

And it only gets worse with Windows 98, says David Karp. A small icon for Internet Explorer is included in "every folder and every directory window" in Windows 98. "When clicked, it takes you directly to Microsoft's Web site. And you can't get rid of it. If nothing else, it's just really ugly and distracting. As far as the user is concerned it's an irritant, but as far as the competition is concerned, it is blatant." (Netscape has a similar icon on its browser, but lacks the power to splatter it throughout an entire operating system.)

As far as the Department of Justice is concerned, Microsoft's integration of Explorer with Windows is distinctly anti-competitive: Other companies, locked out of the user interface, are being denied the chance to strut their innovations.

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Shneiderman agrees: "There are great benefits to a standard platform, but I feel that Netscape and other software providers are entitled to fair competition. Microsoft's success with the operating system should not entitle it to push out innovators in Web browsing."

"I want to have a choice about how I use my computer," says Abbe Don, another specialist in user-interface design. "The whole thing to me is about consumer choice. It should be easy for me to put programs on and take them off, but Microsoft is making that increasingly not easy to do."

"I think a mature approach from Microsoft would be more collaborative," says Shneiderman, "and more cooperative with hardware vendors and vendors of related software products. They've got the operating system on all our desks -- and I would be worried about having one company control too much of the technology that we depend on."

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To many observers, one of the most galling examples of Microsoft's control isn't even the default desktop -- it's that first screen shot that displays while the Windows operating system is booting up. (Users can replace the image by downloading a special Microsoft utility or hacking it by hand.)

"It's an advertising issue," says Don. "If I bought a Sony TV and saw a Sony logo on the screen before any other programming I would probably find that really annoying. And if there were other TV manufacturers who did it differently I would purchase a different TV, or weigh that in my choice."

And there's the rub. In 1998, in the PC market, there appears to be precious little choice, no matter how you weigh your preferences.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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