Once again, the Department of Justice has managed to find some muscle and to flex it in the general direction of Redmond, Washington, charging that Microsoft is using its near-monopoly on PC operating systems to, well, act like Microsoft. This time, the flap is over Internet Explorer, which seems to be installed on just about every new Windows 95 machine these days, and woe betide the manufacturer who seeks to buck the trend and bundle a copy of Netscape.

There is a rather irritating sense of déjà vu about this particular scenario. When Windows 95 was introduced, Microsoft provided an icon for its nascent Microsoft Network right there on the desktop. The powers that be at other online service providers, most notably Steve Case of America Online, went into a full-fledged snit. Microsoft duly pointed out that nobody was forced to use MSN, and that the presence of its icon on the desktop did not preclude usage of any other online service or ISP. Eventually, the marketplace took care of this dispute: AOL and its brethren struck deals to get their software loaded onto new PCs, and for a few months, at least, one of the most common questions posted to support newsgroups and fora was "How do I get the MSN icon off my desktop?" The Microsoft Network is still around, and is generally reckoned to be the third largest online service — though it's no significant threat to AOL's market dominance.

In the case of Internet Explorer, Microsoft is apparently following the path of King C. Gillette, who realized that if he practically gave away the razors, he could make a fortune selling blades. Microsoft is continuing to offer Internet Explorer for free — the IE 4 Commemorative Edition CDs were sold for $4.95 plus a few cents shipping, but then it was possible for a while to buy IE 3 in the so-called "Internet Explorer Starter Kit" for $15 or so, if you really, really hated to spend an hour or three downloading — which has undoubtedly gained some market share for the product, though Netscape remains the dominant Net client. (In the Macintosh market, IE isn't even close.) Microsoft likes to think that IE is part of the operating system, and therefore it should be included with OEM Win95 installations as a matter of course. Certainly the vaunted Active Desktop would seem to support that premise. On the other hand, almost anything outside the Win32 kernel is replaceable; Windows 95 nowhere demands use of Active Desktop or IE 4 or even something as mundane as the Windows Explorer — third-party replacements are available for all these things. And the reason these programs exist is that developers saw needs that Microsoft, for whatever reason, left unfulfilled. Netscape, to maintain its position, is going to have to position Communicator as the answer to the questions left by Microsoft, and therefore worth its price. "We promise not to take over your desktop" might be enough right there.

Meanwhile, I still fail to comprehend the apparent Washington obsession with Microsoft. The Justice Department seemingly never met a merger it didn't like — except when Microsoft weighed in with a tender offer for Intuit, the publisher of Quicken. Time Inc./Warner Communications, Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting, Bell Atlantic/NYNEX, NationsBank/everything in sight: none of these made more than a blip on DOJ radar. But for some reason, Justice has decided that Bill Gates is basically Darth Vader in polyester, and therefore anything the Evil Microsoft Empire does is subject to the most severe scrutiny. If I didn't know better — and, frankly, I don't — I'd have to conclude that a small covey of aggrieved geeklings was sending regular email bombs to Janet Reno.

The Vent

#74
25 October 1997



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