W e b w o r d

Vol. 2, No. 1: JANUARY-FEBRUARY 1998



Charles Petrie

Stanford Center for Design Research


I've never owned a PC.

I've been lucky enough to work on mainframes, minis, Lisp machines, and Unix boxes--expensive stuff provided by my employers. Now that PCs have become ubiquitous, I have to work on them too. It is hard to understand how such a sorry substitute for an operating system has become so widely accepted that the US government feels compelled to intercede in an attempt to prevent Microsoft from extending the "Windows monopoly" to the Internet.


Why DOS and Windows 95 became the de facto standard in the face of better alternatives is a marketing-economic phenomenon discussed at length elsewhere (for example, Torrent is a "Microsoft-free" Web site that maintains links to legal opinions and editorials on the topic). People cry about the Microsoft monopoly while ignoring perfectly good alternatives like Linux or Macs.

But we all understand that application developers spend their precious resources on the perceived winner in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What's really funny is government interventon. Two years ago, many of us in Silicon Valley were saying that the government was irrelevant. This may sound odd to those of you in countries with governments less committed to free-market ideology, but it seemed clear to some of us in California that the Internet was the extreme free-trade zone and that the government would always be behind the technology curve anyway. Their legislation would always be late and unenforceable.

Now the US Department of Justice is the great hope of Silicon Valley, and everyone has hired professional lobbyists in DC.

But is this a good thing?


Forget for the moment that the current action is succeeding in impeding Microsoft's success--only because Microsoft has acted so contemptuously. What's more important is that the government is deciding for industry what an application is and what an operating system is and whether software is "integrated" or "bundled."

Should the government be involved in regulating software systems in order to promote competition? And if so, what else might the government do? It could be much worse than the US DoD's mandated use of Ada. Think about where this could go logically.

The US Department of Commerce could establish software interoperability standards. Consider the network server situation I discussed in an earlier column. The virtual machine consortium wants to establish a set of standards, including Java, for server-side operating and network systems in opposition to homogeneity based on a single platform--Microsoft NT. Suppose the US Congress were to ask NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Commerce department institute responsible for setting US standards) to set standards such as LDAP in the interest of providing a level playing field and preventing a Microsoft monopoly in servers?

Would that be a good thing?

How about this? We go to the root of the OS monopoly. The US Congress passes a law stating that all software applications developed for PCs based on a particular chip must run on at least two different commercial operating systems (from different vendors) for software of a certain distribution number, price, and a thousand other conditions typical of laws. Excel would have to run on Linux, for example.

Or what about a law that requires the application to run on different chips? Heck. Let's just require that all applications run on "pure" Java--as specified by NIST. Now if this seems unlikely in the US, can't you just see it happening in France? (We'll be lucky if they don't mandate code comments in French.)

Or, forget NIST. Suppose that Sun manages to make Java an ISO standard and that some large governments make it a policy to buy only ISO-compliant software. Would that be OK?

How about if they tax software that doesn't conform?


I'm no Microsoft fan, but we are leaning toward the proverbial slippery slope without knowing where it stops. None of the above has happened, and it may be unlikely that the US Justice department would go much further.

But if just one major government makes a move, they could influence the market the same way that Texas and California affect the US education textbook industry for all the smaller states.

Governments are not irrelevant to the Internet. They may be slow. They may even be clueless. But they still have guns and money that Microsoft does not.

We need to think collectively about the principles that should guide policies and laws so the behaviors that emerge are behaviors we like.

Check out forums like Software Industry Issues and let us know what you think. Should government and software really mix?

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