Microsoft unbound

No longer cowed by the feds, the colossus of Redmond returns to business as usual.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 12, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Any day now, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will rule on whether Microsoft should be broken up per Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's orders. No one is absolutely sure what will happen, but when one takes into account this court's well-established antipathy to antitrust enforcement, and considers the tart, aggressive questioning the appellate judges tortured Department of Justice prosecutors with earlier this spring, the smart money is on Microsoft.

Certainly, Microsoft's own recent behavior suggests that confidence is brimming over in Redmond. According to Fortune magazine, Bill Gates has a new spring in his step, and CEO Steve Ballmer is happily back on the warpath. Indeed, virtually everything these men are saying and doing right now demonstrates exactly why Microsoft got itself into trouble with the feds in the first place.

It seems, at the very least, that the DOJ should add an appendix to its brief against Microsoft. Wait, make that three appendixes -- one for each new instance of Microsoftian arrogance on the rise. There could be no better examples of how sure Microsoft is that it will get off with little more than a slap on the wrist. There's the company's newly aggressive stance against open-source software; its battle with America Online over instant messaging and control of the Windows desktop; and the pricing plans and piracy-fighting protections built into the new Windows/Office XP. Microsoft, it seems, has learned nothing from its travails except that it can get away with anything.

Exhibit A: The war on cancer

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on June 1, Ballmer called Linux a "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches."

And as if that wasn't inflammatory enough, the Microsoft CEO also provided the software world with an interpretation of the role of government in the software marketplace that can only be described as pure Orwellian doublespeak:

"The only thing we have a problem with is when the government funds open-source work," said Ballmer. "Government funding should be for work that is available to everybody. Open source is not available to commercial companies. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source."

So it's OK if the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing Microsoft software for use in its many departments, even though the source code to that software is locked up by patents and copyright restrictions and everything else Microsoft lawyers can think of -- but the government can't fund software that is truly designed to be accessible to the general public.

The line "if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source" is staggeringly misleading. Yes, it is true that there is a vigorous debate within the software programming community over exactly how proprietary software and free software can be "integrated." It's a complex question with intricacies that have never been hammered out in front of a judge, so no one really knows the answer.

But Microsoft doesn't seem to notice that even the free-software GPL (general public license) that it is so intent on demonizing has an alternative -- the LGPL, specifically designed to assuage the concerns of precisely those commercial interests wary of what they can or cannot do with software that has been protected with the more rigorous GPL. And then there are scores of other licenses that let you do anything you want.

But even if the most venomous interpretation of the GPL is true, there's a very simple answer for companies like Microsoft, fearful of entanglement with the stain of free software: Don't turn to open-source software at all -- instead, innovate, like Microsoft's marketing literature says. Strictly written free-software licenses aren't designed to make it difficult for commercial software companies to do business; they're designed to prevent corporations from profiting off of the freely donated labor of programmers without giving anything back.

Exhibit B: Mud-wrestling with AOL

It's not easy to pick a fan favorite in the AOL-Microsoft tussle. AOL wants its software included in Windows XP. But it also doesn't want Microsoft bundling Microsoft's instant messaging software in XP. Microsoft, meanwhile, wants people to only have the option of signing up with MSN when they boot up new computers, and if there's a useful piece of software out there that they can integrate into their operating system, well, bring it on.

Oh, the joys of "integration." When prevented from integrating with GPL'ed free software, Microsoft calls it a cancer. But when questioned about its habits of wiping out competing companies by making versions of their products and then including them for free in its operating system, that's praiseworthy "innovation."

The spat with AOL would be only so much déjà vu posturing between two giant conglomerates if there weren't so much at stake. For years observers of Microsoft's MSN have called it an also-ran or worse. But if MSN is the default Internet service provider for Microsoft Windows machines, and AOL users are forced to install from a CD-ROM, then it's not hard to imagine Microsoft doing to AOL what it did to Netscape. It's the same principle, the same desktop, the same leveraging of monopoly power. And this time around, if the appellate court lets Microsoft off the hook, there will be nothing to stop Microsoft from further leveraging that power at every opportunity.

Exhibit C: XP, the eternal cash register

Oh, the wonders of XP -- the next version of the Windows operating system, due for release this fall. Business users will be forced to upgrade more often, at higher prices. Regular old users better not change the hardware on their machines, or they'll have to reregister online with Microsoft, which will thus be able to keep tabs on their every computerized move. And in an added benefit for the consumer, XP comes with all kinds of newfangled copy protection, sure to fill Windows users with glee.

From a distance, one has to wonder how Microsoft's plans to turn its software products into subscription offerings are going to go over with consumers. How are our lives enhanced by making it more difficult to install and run software that we've purchased on the different computers that we own? Could there really be a new, improved form of copy protection that doesn't end up alienating and infuriating us?

But wait -- maybe XP actually does offer hope for a better, freer future. Imagine what will happen if XP makes software piracy impossible, or at the least much more difficult. What happens next? All those people who can't afford Microsoft software will be forced to look for lower-cost (or free) alternatives, which can only boost the development of those alternatives. In its obsession with piracy, Microsoft may well be creating a market for its competition.

No wonder Microsoft has taken off the gloves with respect to free software. The federal government is no longer a threat, nor are any commercial software companies. So, suddenly, Linux is a cancer.

Microsoft triumphant, again.

Andrew Leonard

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

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