Ctrl-Alt-Del for MicrosoftR?

Freedom of choice-it is a fundamental principle in American culture. As I write this article using Microsoft Word (from a Microsoft Office package) on a Macintosh running on Mac OS 8.5 with Netscape Navigator running in the background, I can only think that Microsoft Corporation should have seen it coming. With the recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, it was evident that the company was simply getting too big with too much power. When a single company gets so large or so powerful that people perceive the company's attitude has changed from "always try to please the customer" to "my way or the highway," something is bound to happen.

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the more-detailed Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 clearly define what constitutes illegal business practices and attempts to monopolize trade. Microsoft was found guilty of violating Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act which state, respectively, "Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce...is declared to be illegal," and "Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of trade or commerce shall be deemed guilty of a felony...".

Without question, Bill Gates is one of the most technically adept, business savvy people on the planet. He and Paul Allen, having been two of the most foresighted individuals in the world in the 1970s, spent years building Microsoft Corporation to an international giant. While Mr. Gates certainly has his opponents in business, he must also be recognized and commended on his efforts to build the personal computer industry into what it is today. However, in spite of company claims that the internet can never be monopolized, controlling access to it is certainly foreseeable when one considers Microsoft's dominant market share in operating systems for the personal computer industry.

Gates must surely have understood that when the Federal Trade Commission first began investigating the company for antitrust violations back in 1990. He and other corporate executives must have realized that a Justice Department investigation would not be too far behind if Microsoft's competitors were successful in gaining a kind ear at Justice. I wonder how the computer world would be different today if ten years ago Microsoft Corporation had been transformed in some way into the Microsoft Group of Companies?

In this particular case, both sides seem to have presented legitimate arguments, depending on your point of view. For the last 25 years, Microsoft has been a classic example of the American Dream - a successful company at work in a capitalistic free market. Those opposing Judge Jackson's decision see it as a direct contradiction to the Government's ideals of laissez-faire.

On the other hand, Microsoft's dominant market share in operating systems for the personal computer industry makes it a prime target for antitrust legal action. Any computer novice can understand how easily the company could eventually restrain trade by restricting the compliance between its operating systems and applications from other manufacturers. If the actions claimed by the Justice Department were indeed true, then the birth of a monopoly was eminent.

Regardless of whether Microsoft did or did not violate antitrust laws, a divestiture of the company into two separate entities for operating systems and applications has always seemed to be the most logical solution. The problem as it currently stands is that the divestiture has been mandated by law and Bill Gates and the executives at Microsoft may have lost control of their own destiny. If Judge Jackson's ruling is overturned, it is my guess that Microsoft and the Justice Department will be at odds for many decades to come.

And what will the Justice Department have accomplished if Judge Jackson's ruling prevails? Not much. Will the market shift drastically? I don't think so. It's still a matter of consumer choice. Personally, I've used several different word processing packages and still find MS Word to be the most user-friendly. I'll stick with the MS Office package and use both Internet Explorer and Navigator to access the internet. I will continue to do so as long as I have a choice; but, if that choice is ever taken away by Microsoft, or their products become more "clunky" than others on the market, I won't hesitate to look for another computer equipment or software supplier - provided I have a compatible operating system.