March 1999

Why Break Up Microsoft?

Or "What is an Operating System?"

In the dark ages of computers, programmers had empty machines in front of them, and they had to load in every single piece of code they needed to do everything. Printing, file input and output, all the basics had to be built anew for each new application. It didn't take long for the programmers to come to their senses. If they could put all the frequently-used code in one place and leave it there, then they'd save time. Their applications would become smaller, less complex, easier to write. The operating system was born.

To make this work well, all they had to do was agree on a standard for accessing this common software. For instance, should the programmer have to say "print this data onto this device", or "print onto this device, this data"? There is no difference in functionality, but if the programmer doesn't do what the operating system expects, his program crashes.

Now we can see what an OS really is: a set of standards, used by application developers, to access common software. Application developers are the primary customer of an OS. To be useful, this set of standards has to be completely known. And it has to change openly and gradually.

With this definition in mind, it is plain to see that a company that has a monopoly on the OS can easily defeat the application developer. The developer should be the customer of the OS designer. Under Microsoft's model, the developer is left to the mercy of Microsoft, who just happens to compete with them.

Without a doubt, an OS is what antitrust people call an "essential facility" for software developers. And without a doubt Microsoft abuses that power to their advantage. There are countless examples of Microsoft altering the standards of their operating system in ways which don't make it better, but do cause competing applications to break.

This is the fundamental reason why Microsoft should not be allowed to compete in the applications market while it controls the operating system market. By destroying competition, we guarantee ourselves worse products at higher prices. (Microsoft's monopoly does not simplify the market to our advantage, nor does it yield innovation in the way a healthy market would.)

I would also contend that it is also important to go farther than simply ordering Microsoft to play nice, to share the operating system standards. They have shown that they don't play nice, and will always do the bare minimum (or less) to comply with court orders.

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