The devil is in Windows' details

It's the little things, like "registered file types," that allow Microsoft to maintain its monopoly. Will the court tackle them?

Published October 8, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Microsoft and its Justice Department opponents are back in settlement talks ordered by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. The last settlement round, ordered by the last judge, went nowhere. Since then Microsoft has been officially determined, by both the district and appeals courts, to be a monopolist and to have broken the antitrust laws. But the government has dropped its push to break up the company and now seeks a variety of procedural remedies.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to behave as though nothing has happened, merrily releasing a new operating system, Windows XP, whose design replicates all the approaches that got the company in trouble in the past. Microsoft is sticking its tongue out at the courts and the world, essentially saying, "You'll have to come and drag Bill Gates away in chains if you expect us to care about some measly court."

There's a lot that could and should be done to reform Microsoft's behavior. And don't tell me that the antitrust laws should be suspended for the sake of national unity after the Sept. 11 attack -- or that the government should back off of a mega-company like Microsoft because the economy is on the ropes. Restraining Microsoft and restoring competition to the software industry should eventually give the economy a boost. And even if a strict remedy order depresses Microsoft's stock in the short run, Microsoft has always done its best work when faced with real competition -- and in the long run the company can only benefit by being forced to deal fairly with challenges to its leadership.

But as the lawyers haggle over their proposed settlements, something tells me they will not be getting at the meat of the problem. Microsoft protects its monopoly through a host of practices that barely register in the media or the public mind. The trial court's voluminous "findings of fact" only scratched the surface of the variety of stratagems the company employs to lock out competitors.

Take, for instance, the peculiar matter of "registered file types."

That ungainly phrase is hardly a familiar one, and -- unlike "tying," "bundling," "network effect," "browser integration" and other greatest hits from Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's courtroom -- it did not become a household word during the serpentine course of the Microsoft antitrust battle. But the problem with Windows' "registered file types" is just the sort of subtle but nasty Microsoft practice that many of us hoped a forceful antitrust ruling and tough remedy would finally change. It is one little example of the myriad techniques our most powerful operating-system vendor has at its disposal to screw competitors, take over new markets and -- contrary to its propaganda -- make users' lives more miserable.

Here's what I'm talking about: Once upon a time, PC users opened documents only from within their application programs. Macintosh users had the luxury of clicking on any file they liked, and, if the program required to read that file wasn't already running, it would automatically launch. The Mac file system understood, as if by magic, which files belonged to which programs. Windows was dependent instead on a relic of the old DOS file system -- a three-letter "extension," like ".txt" or ".doc" -- to match files with programs. This isn't quite as elegant as the Mac approach, but it works -- until you want to switch the program you use for a particular file type.

Then, you're basically at Microsoft's mercy. Because Windows makes you go on a mad hunt through menus and folders and options to find the dialogue box that lets you make any such change. It's not in the "add/remove programs" control panel, where you'd expect it. It's not under "properties" when you right-click on a file. It's not in any obvious or easily accessible location. (For future reference, here is where it is: In Windows 98, open Windows Explorer, find the View menu, look under "Folder Options," then find the hidden "File Types" tab -- which may not even be there, depending on what you have selected in the Windows Explorer window. In Windows XP, the feature is similarly hidden behind the cryptic "Folder Options" label.)

Why does any of this arcane Windows lore matter, other than as an example of poor interface design, and what does any of it have to do with the antitrust showdown at Bill Gates' corral?

The "registered file type" is in fact a powerful funnel for computer usage, as it were, and a key tool for Microsoft as it tries to muscle its way into new markets -- like control of the software people use to view digital photos and listen to digital music. The courts are focused on "bundling," the issue of what pieces of software are included in the operating system automatically by Microsoft -- which, for example, has wrapped its new Windows Media Player into Windows to try to squash longtime competitors like Real Networks and to take control of the nascent online music industry.

The trouble is, even if some court orders Microsoft to throw Real Player into the Windows package, it doesn't make much difference if most users can't figure out how to switch the default player of music files from Windows Media to Real. When Joe User clicks on a music file, even if he likes Real Player and prefers to use it, Windows Media Player will open and play the file. Unless Joe is a power user or an extremely persistent fellow, he will eventually give up on Real. The competitor's software will sit on the hard drive, unused, while Microsoft takes over yet another market.

The remedy is obvious: Force Microsoft to make it easy to change registered file types in Windows. It would probably take one of Microsoft's developers a short afternoon to build a simple, forthrightly labeled control panel that sits right on every user's desktop and asks, in plain English, "Which program would you like to open Web pages? Or text files? Or MP3 audio files? Or photo files?" Then, instead of Microsoft making choices for users to promote its new businesses, users could decide for themselves "where they want to go today." The reason Microsoft has never done this isn't technical; it's pure business hardball cowering behind the camouflage of a technicality.

Alas, the courts are unlikely to order such a remedy, because it smacks of "product design," and the lawyers are understandably reluctant to get into the business of making such decisions. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to see how a well-intentioned court or legal settlement can bring Microsoft to heel without getting its hands dirty with such details.

If the courts are to have any impact on the real world of computing, or make any headway against Microsoft's continued flouting of the antitrust rules, they will now have to bury themselves elbow-deep in stuff like registered file types. That was why the breakup order, though draconian in many ways, offered a cleaner vision of how to curb Microsoft's illegal behavior than the mire of "conduct remedies" the company now faces.

If Judge Kollar-Kotelly and the Justice Department take their work seriously, Microsoft may find itself wishing it had just let itself be broken up. If they don't, we can look forward to another decade of monopoly.

Postscript: Several readers have e-mailed me to outline what they feel are holes in my argument. They point out that in the most recent versions of Windows, a right click on file names will offer you an "Open with" option, and that if you navigate this properly you can check a box that says "Always open files of this type with this program," thus effectively changing the default option.

This is correct but irrelevant to the point I'm making. The power of "default" settings lies in users' ignorance and inertia. There are millions of Windows users who barely know what "right-clicking" is. These users may be disdained by some of my correspondents, but they constitute a critical mass in the marketplace.

Other readers have complained that I ignored the ability software developers have to let their programs commandeer Windows' registered file types when programs are installed. This is hardly a positive feature of Windows; in fact it is one of the problems with the operating system, since courteous developers will ask users for their permission before changing a file-type association but aggressive ones can just do so without checking. Again, this takes choice out of the hands of users and puts us all at the mercy of developers who are trying to grab market share for their programs. Microsoft isn't the only troublemaker here.

My central point remains: What Windows needs is a plain-English set of choices, in plain view, one that any novice user can easily find and understand, to tell the computer which program to use to open different kinds of files. There is no good reason under the sun that Microsoft has not provided such an option.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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