Microsoft is aggressively seeking to shape the future of personal computing, Internet publishing, and electronic commerce. It has achieved a dominant position in the computer industry already and is poised to extend its reach. Is what is good for Microsoft good for consumers? Not always. Consider the following:
Microsoft has never been known for its innovations. (Click for more on Microsoft's history of borrowing.) Yet, Microsoft operating-system software is used to run between 80 percent and 90 percent of the world's personal computers now, and that share is increasing.
When personal computers first entered the market, there was enormous innovation in new desktop-software applications. In recent years, as Microsoft has come to dominate one important desktop market after another, there have been fewer and fewer new entrants or new products in these markets--and, many would say, far less innovation.
Today the most important challenge in selecting a word processor, relational database, or other desktop application is finding a product that can perform adequately without crashing when the user is running the latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. More and more often the safest bet is--not surprisingly--Microsoft, the only company that really knows how its operating system works and the only company that can arbitrarily change how that operating system works. (For examples of how Microsoft uses its control of the operating system to undermine rivals, click.)
The Internet is the most successful new platform for publishing and sharing information. It developed in an environment that was profoundly anti-monopolistic, and which embraced open standards. Microsoft ignored the Internet initially, even creating a rival proprietary network architecture for its Microsoft Network.
Sun Microsystems has developed a computer programming language named Java, designed so that programs written in it would run on any computer, regardless of the operating system. The Java language is very important for the development of feature-rich Web publishing. Microsoft wants to create a special Java language for Windows. Its version won't run on non-Microsoft operating systems, damaging the promise that the same software will run on different computers. This will permit Microsoft to exercise the same type of proprietary control over MS Java applications that it does over other Windows applications.
Microsoft, a firm known for its aggressive anti-piracy campaigns, is spending tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars to develop and promote the Microsoft Internet Explorer, which it gives away. Why? By monopolizing the browser market, and by destroying Java's promise as a cross-platform language, Microsoft will be in a position to transform the Internet radically by moving toward a new set of Microsoft-owned or Microsoft-controlled standards for Internet publishing and electronic commerce. (For more on Microsoft's efforts to monopolize the Internet, click.)
Microsoft is trying to position itself to own the software used by consumers to operate a new generation of cable-TV systems, consumer electronics, and other devices that will be used to connect to the information superhighway. This would extend the monopoly Microsoft has on operating systems for personal computers.
Not content with its enormous market share in PC software, Microsoft wants to hold our hand as we navigate the information superhighway, and to push us--not so subtly--toward its own partners or subsidiaries by strategically placing desktop or browser links to its products and services. This will give Microsoft enormous advantages in positioning its own products in electronic commerce and let it play kingmaker for other businesses. (For other examples of Microsoft's predatory ways, click.)
For those who look into the future and are concerned, there are some fundamental questions: What can be done? What should be done? What will be done? Wherever Microsoft goes today or tomorrow, it must not be allowed too much control over something as important as the way we communicate with one another.
Bill Gates wrote in The Road Ahead about the need for a dialogue on the information highway. Next month a group of industry leaders, academic specialists, consumer activists, and government officials will gather in Washington, D.C., at a conference to debate the impact of Microsoft's business practices and to develop strategies to address the future of digital communications. How about joining us, Mr. Gates?
James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, prepared additional material for this article.