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linux opinion
Maddog's MS Justice
Linux International Director Jon "Maddog" Hall on the MS Appeals Court case.
Jon "maddog" Hall , ZDNet Business & Technology
July 13, 2001 9:08 PM ET

Recently I was asked about my thoughts on the recent turn of events in the Microsoft legal proceedings. Here's my answer:

First of all, I agree with the courts, in that the case was handled both well and poorly. On the poor side, Judge Jackson never should have made those inflammatory comments to the press. Nor should he have allowed his feelings to influence his decision, if indeed that was the case. His remarks inspire reasonable doubt, and our law says that reasonable doubt lands squarely on the side of the defendant.

Secondly, the major issue in the case revolved around Internet Explorer. I agree with Microsoft's stance that the browser should be part of the operating system--as tightly coupled as the OS allows. That way, the default interface for the OS would actually be the browser itself.

On a more positive note, the case was handled quite well in terms of the decision to divide the ruling into two issues:

  • Is Microsoft a monopoly?
  • If so, did Microsoft employ strategies to undermine other vendors and enter new markets?

I believe (and the courts found) that the answer to both of these questions is yes.

Microsoft controls more than 90 percent of the desktop operating system marketplace. It has been shown that the company used its dominance of the market to bully vendors into acquiescing, since vendors thought they had no alternative to Microsoft's desktop products.

Most Americans don't seem to understand that acceptable--not necessarily moral or fair--practices can be legal when a company owns only a small percentage of the marketplace; but they become illegal when that company grows beyond a rather hazy boundary.

Microsoft is so far over this boundary that drastic action must now be taken. The action we choose to take is where the difference of opinion lies. (Judge Jackson did a fine job of detailing this idea.)

In this light, it's ironic that AT&T and Time-Warner were not allowed to complete their merger because it would have given them control of 40 percent of the broadband marketplace. Yet no one regulates Microsoft, which controls more than twice that percentage of the desktop space.

Microsoft has begun to supply network services, and purchase portions of banks, industry magazines and other businesses. What happens when Microsoft software drives its network services, and both drive its banking services? In other words, what happens when Microsoft controls both the delivery medium and the content? Will all of computer science one day be filtered through Redmond, Washington?

It wouldn't be so bad if Microsoft were to evaluate and acquire the best technology in a field and integrate it into their products. That way, innovators in that field could make a little money, and end users would receive the best technology available. Instead, Microsoft often targets technology that's second- or even third-best, knowing that the very best will be much more expensive to purchase (and the end-user will probably never know the difference).

I (and various Linux International members) feel that the officers of Microsoft--both current and former--should be punished for their actions. They broke the law. They forced good companies out of business. They stifled--not encouraged--innovation.

Now, you might ask what I would do to ameliorate this situation. Here are my suggested remedies:

  • Jail the people at Microsoft who were responsible for breaking the law.

Simply penalizing them with a fine is not enough. If I had only a billion dollars left after being fined heavily, I might not feel remorse for my actions, either. After all, if I hadn't not been so ruthless in the first place, I might not have even made that billion. After two or three years in jail, though, I might think twice about breaking the law again.

  • Allow compensation to damaged companies.

This would be in addition to the jail time, not in lieu of it. Microsoft and its various employees might actually feel a monetary pinch with such a ruling.

  • Regulate Microsoft as a utility.

If Microsoft is so essential to our economy, then the company should be regulated--as AT&T was regulated when it controlled 90 percent of the telephone industry in the US-- with regulated profits, limited expansion into new businesses, published standards (so other companies can compete), and regulated mergers and acquisitions.

  • Promote standards
At one time the military had a policy that only operating systems with POSIX interfaces could be purchased. This was to protect government investments in applications purchased, to make sure that the operating systems could run those applications. To get around these restrictions Microsoft used two tactics: it created a weak set of POSIX interfaces on top of Windows NT, and finagled exceptions for its Windows 95 and 98 products.

I suggest that the government amend this ruling to say that all applications purchased must be written and published to POSIX interfaces. This would force ISVs to offer versions of their products that run on POSIX-compatible operating systems. And it would force Microsoft to create a more complete set of POSIX interfaces for any new operating systems it produces, which in turn would encourage more ISVs to port to accepted standards, instead of to Microsoft's proprietary interfaces.

  • Remove funding from universities that don't promote open standards.

While Universities should be free to select the best tools for teaching, the government (and the public) shouldn't have to help fund the purchase of proprietary software.

All research grants offered by the government (both federal and state) should mandate that non-Microsoft operating systems and software--when available--be used for research projects. And state-run universities should use state money only to support classes in which non-Microsoft software is used as a teaching tool--Microsoft products should be used only when no other reasonable alternative exists. This would help raise students' awareness of alternatives to Microsoft products, which in turn would encourage diversity and innovation in the commercial world.

  • Federal and state accreditation agencies should disallow "one-vendor" training classes.

Classes such as "Microsoft Word for Managers" should not be taught as accredited college courses. Instead, courses in the vein of "Comparative Word Processing Programs for Managers," which would teach students how to use several different word processing apps (and the advantages and disadvantages of each) should be offered. If, however, one-vendor courses continue to be taught, course time should not be applicable to an accredited degree, and students should be required to pay additional tuition to cover the expense of such a course.

  • Require standards-based certification for government computer employees.

Currently there are two certification efforts in the Open Source arena, and one being developed by SAGE, a non-profit special interest group of USENIX. Federal and state system administrators should be required to pass these certification suites, instead of the proprietary MSCE tests now developed by Microsoft, which only require knowledge of Microsoft products. These are the remedies that I would like to see happen in this case. Quite frankly, from a company standpoint, Microsoft should have agreed to the breakup and considered itself lucky.

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