It's a Microsoft world, that's clear.
The U.S. Department of Justice has abjectly settled its long-running antitrust suit against the software company on terms that can only be described as surrender. A few holdouts among the state attorneys general who are parties to the suit are unlikely to derail the settlement.
Microsoft has just moved to settle a variety of private antitrust suits by -- get this! -- donating a variety of resources, including oodles of Microsoft software that doesn't cost Bill Gates an incremental cent, to impoverished school systems around the U.S., allowing the company to muscle in on one of the very few markets in which its longtime and long-decimated rival Apple still maintains some strength.
To clear its antitrust plate, Microsoft is moving quickly toward a settlement of European antitrust actions that are the last remaining clouds on its legal horizon.
Each time the technology industry slumps -- as it did in the early '90s, when Microsoft's Windows cemented its now-overwhelming lead on Apple's Macintosh -- Microsoft can make hay; it sits on a pot of roughly $36 billion, and in recessions, cash is king. As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, for Microsoft, an economic downturn means "It's time to wrest important new markets from its weakened rivals": The company can turn up the marketing heat and the research budgets even as its competitors order up layoffs and spending cuts. And it can buy up promising new technology start-ups at bargain prices.
If you are among those who thought Microsoft's behavior deserved sterner treatment in the courts, as I am, is there any alternative to outrage and despair? Of course. Microsoft has been dubbed the Evil Empire so often it's a cliché, but as George Lucas and Ronald Reagan would both remind us, evil empires lose in the end. In Microsoft's case, resistance isn't necessarily futile -- in fact, whether or not it ever succeeds in changing the fact of Microsoft's market control, taking some defiant steps can improve your computing life and work, right here, right now.
That's what supporters of Microsoft who dismiss such complaints as knee-jerk whining -- or sectarian fanaticism in the religious wars of computerdom -- don't get about the critique of Microsoft that's widely held by many industry observers: It's not about mindless anti-Microsoft bias; it's a sane and pragmatic response to the negative aspects of Microsoft's monopoly that continue to warp the computer industry's growth and development.
So here's what we can still do, and neither the Justice Department nor the folks in Redmond can stop us:
Support software biodiversity -- use non-Microsoft products.
Even if you use Windows as your basic operating system, you can still find better alternatives to the Microsoft-produced default software programs you probably use for important daily tasks. You may get Microsoft's Outlook e-mail software free when Microsoft Office is installed on your computer, but do you really want to open your precious in box up to the onslaught of Outlook-related viruses that seem to mutate and multiply by the minute? Competing e-mail software -- like Eudora, which I use, and many others -- isn't perfect, but you'd be surprised how quickly all those Outlook-related headaches vanish.
Similarly, Internet Explorer is the de facto monopoly standard for Web browsers, and over the years Microsoft has certainly improved its speed and reliability, but there are great alternatives -- I do most of my Web work in Opera, a fast, smart, quick-loading browser that gives you fine control over nearly every feature. As Microsoft loads IE up with more and more cross-promotions for (and cross-functionality with) its other products, you may just want to get off the Explorer bandwagon.
Save our tax dollars -- lobby government to adopt free-software alternatives.
Microsoft's consumer and business operating systems have both grown effectively more expensive over time; as prices for every other aspect of a personal computer -- from central processor to memory to monitors to disk drives -- have dropped through the floor, the "Microsoft tax" takes up a bigger and bigger slice of the total cost of each new computer. Microsoft has a right to pursue any legal pricing strategy it wants, but hey, why should the government's precious dollars fatten the company's already overflowing coffers?
It's not yet reasonable to move the entire government workforce onto Linux desktops; the free operating system remains too tough for novices, though the open-source programming community has been working on that for years, and sooner or later they'll get it right.
But servers are a different story. One sensible way to save the government money would be to move as much of the government's non-desktop systems over to Linux and other free software products. (It looks like www.whitehouse.gov is already running Linux; good for them.) You'd end up with a more secure system for every server that switched away from Microsoft's "solution" -- and though you might need more hardware if you were switching from more powerful Sun boxes, hardware is cheap and getting cheaper. Windows is the only part of the computer likely to go up in price any time soon.
After its recent victories, Microsoft is bound to enter a new period of divide and conquer -- excuse me, "embrace and extend." Hardball is in the company's DNA; it won't be able to resist pushing even the watered-down requirements of the antitrust settlement to the limit, or maybe beyond, as it searches for new markets.
In its antitrust suit, the government had trouble, as John Heilemann has chronicled, getting Microsoft's competitors to step forward with hard evidence of the company's tactics. Next time around -- and there will almost certainly be another time, just as this most recent suit was a reprise of a previous legal tussle -- Microsoft may not have it so easy. Anyone dealing with Microsoft today ought to know to take notes, bring witnesses, keep good records. They may come in handy if you have been "embraced and extended" in anticompetitive ways.
The most delirious prophets of the new economy forgot that the technology industry is, always has been and probably always will be cyclical. Innovation sparks investment in new products; investors get too giddy and overdo it; people wake up and realize the future is all red ink; the dollars move on while the original innovation becomes a part of daily life -- and a sustainable industry. Boom turns to bust turns to boom again.
Since we are smack in the middle of a bust right now, it's easy to forget this. The "next big thing" may not be as big as the Internet was; it could be bigger. Either way, the odds are huge that whatever it is, it will come from left field, not from Redmond -- no matter how much hype gets blown about ".Net."
For all its talk of innovation, Microsoft is rarely in the forefront of the new developments in computing that really take off -- whether it's the graphical user interface, the Web, Palm devices or trading music files. To be fair to Gates and company, they are probably more innovative than most companies their size. But companies as big as Microsoft is today never start software revolutions; at best they co-opt them.
That reality -- something no legal win or war chest can remedy -- must rankle Gates. ("Richest guy in the world" is, in a strange way, a consolation prize.) But it gives the rest of the technology industry something to work toward and dream about.