Edward Rothstein,

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March 6 1998 12:30 AM

Edward Rothstein,

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       All right. I can't resist. Here it is, Thursday, and for four days I've been living a parallel life to Bill Gates, who is resident just above me on Slate's table of contents. Of course, the parallels are somewhat limited: Time magazine didn't invite me to its multimillion-dollar shindig.
       But we are neighbors. Until tomorrow, I'm even a paid guest in this particular branch of the Gates manse. And in all that time, I have never stopped by, knocking on his URL to ask to borrow a cup of cyber-sugar.
       To tell the truth, I've been a bit reluctant. I have been, after all, highly critical of Mr. Gates' foundation donating all that software to libraries and schools; in fact (with apologies to Slate readers), I believe getting every school wired into the Internet should not be a very high educational priority. I have also been quite snobby about Mr. Gates' preference for digital reproductions of paintings. And I have been critical of the design of MSN.
       Well, enough. Because, as I've also argued, Microsoft has been getting a raw deal. I have been a dissenter among my colleagues about the Justice Department pursuit of Microsoft. To put this a bit provocatively, the problem is not that Microsoft is an effective monopolist. The problem is that it isn't effective enough.
       After all, what kind of monopolist worth the name gives away a product but still can't convince almost two-thirds of the market to use it (Internet Explorer)? What kind of monopolist, possessing the most detailed knowledge about the workings of its products, can't prevent competitors from making money by fixing them and analyzing them better (witness Cybermedia's First Aid or Norton's Utilities)? What kind of monopolist has no control over the content of the region it is supposedly about to take over and can't dictate a single aspect of its operation (the World Wide Web)?
       And the area where Microsoft might arguably be a monopolist--operating systems--is just where it is also most vulnerable. Who has not cursed at crashes, freezes, and corrupted files? Who has not reinstalled Windows at least three times? Disgruntlement over imperfections may carry over into other areas. Microsoft has yet to be so successful at what it does that people don't yearn for something else (some even take the plunge). If Windows 95 really worked as elegantly and powerfully as it should, would Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems have called Mr. Gates "the most dangerous and powerful industrialist of our age" at the recent congressional hearings? (Mr. Gates, in Tuesday's diary, said of Mr. McNealy, "He's a very charming guy and somebody I've enjoyed getting to know over the years.")
       But seriously, dear diary, Microsoft is the dominant force in what is still a half-baked, primitive, flaw-ridden, and awkward technology. It is taking some heat because of the technology's crudity (the way a passenger on the Wright brothers' plane might have complained about too much air conditioning). And it has taken some heat because of its failures to make that technology as invisible as it should be (or as invisible as Apple occasionally made it). And it has taken some heat because of its aggressiveness (the legal niceties I'll leave to others).
       But in return Microsoft has already performed a significant service. It has helped establish standards and procedures that allow other advances and innovations to take place. It was only after the long-playing record, turning at 33 1/3 rpm, trounced the rival 45-rpm format that improvements could take place in vinyl pressing, stereophonic coding, and cartridge design, that record stores could focus their attention and recording companies focus their resources. There was some sacrifice in that monopolistic dominance--45-rpm standards would have been sonically superior--but there was also some reward; 33 1/3-rpm records allowed longer playing time (a similar battle and similar result took place decades later with VHS and Beta videotapes).
       Now if Microsoft could only become a more effective monopolist, if it could only create an operating system that will work seamlessly with any of the tens of thousands of pieces of hardware and software out there in the marketplace without causing someone to occasionally yearn for something else, if it could only be thoroughly effective in turning the PC into an appliance as functional and easy to use as a toaster oven, then the lawsuits might stop. At least until we get a chance to welcome the next technological monopolist.
       Now, Mr. Gates, can I borrow a cup of sugar?

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for the New York Times and writes the paper's "Connections" column on technology (archived here). He is the author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.