March 1999

The Benefits of a Monopoly

In the media, when the issue of breaking up Microsoft comes up, the discussion always follows a path of "we could do that but..." followed by a list of reasons why we actually can't. The two most often-repeated reasons are countered below.

A One-Platform World is Nicer

The most popular reason given is that it is very convenient to only worry about buying software for a single platform. After all, Unix and Mac users have a hard (or impossible) time finding software that is exactly compatible with Windows, right?

Maybe, but that's not because compatibility between platforms is a hard technical problem. It's because Microsoft's tactics have effectively blocked any attempt to solve that problem.

Some companies have tried to use emulators to solve this problem. While this has met with some success, it has met with more failure, for two reasons. First, Microsoft won't release exact specifications on their Operating System (why should they?), so there's no way to be sure your emulator is working correctly. And second, Microsoft can change the way the operating system works from release to release in arbitrary ways that will break the emulators. (They call it innovation.)

Other companies have tried to develop toolkits that allow software to be developed simoultaneously for multiple platforms. These attempts have been thwarted using the exact same tactics.

Still other companies (notably Sun and Netscape) are trying to develop a web-based platform for running applications based on Java. They were successful to the extent that Microsoft felt compelled to license Java and develop a version for Windows. However, Microsoft broke the licensing agreement, and altered Java in a way that made it non-compatible. If developers used this feature, their applications would only work on a Windows machine, defeating the entire purpose of Java.

Without these tactics, there would be vastly more inter-operability than we have today. The argument collapses, because it is the existence of the monopoly that has created the problem, rather than alleviating it.

It would be catastrophic

This argument seems to play on nebulous fears that it would just be bad, just because it would be. The implication is that Microsoft controls so much of the market it would be a catastrophe to split them up.

This is ridiculous. Effectively, the argument is that the problem is too bad to solve. No one is talking about destroying microsoft; only of splitting them in two (or more) pieces. Each piece would still do its part, would still employ people, would still improve its product and support products already developed.

And if Microsoft did collapse, did disappear, it would be because they aren't good enough to compete without a monopoly; because they were replaced by other companies, with better support or better products, who would also employ lots of people.

In my opinion, if Microsoft were split up tomorrow, within a year, we'd have five new operating systems on the market, all better than Windows9x. We'd live in a world where venture capitalists might invest in companies without fearing of Microsoft.

There are no benefits to Microsoft's monopoly. We'd be better off all around without it.

Tom Fine's Home Send Me Email