Microsoft denies choice

This is a guest editortial which appeared in the January 2, 1998 issue of USA Today. It was a response to a USA Today editorial which criticized the US Department of Justice's case against Microsoft.

Microsoft denies choice
By Ralph Nader and James Love

The problem with current antitrust enforcements isn't that the Justice Department is asking too much, but rather that it has yet to seek broader remedies for Microsoft's anticompetitive conduct.

The current dispute concerns an important but narrow issue. Can Microsoft force computer manufacturers to install Microsoft's Internet Explorer software every time they want to license Windows 95? The "tying" of a competitive product to a monopoly product has long been considered illegal under antitrust laws, and for good reason. Unfortunately, tying is only one of many anticompetitive strategies.

Consider what Microsoft is doing to force consumers to "choose" its Internet browser. It's redesigning the technology for help files to require IE. Important operating files have "migrated" to IE, forcing consumers to install IE to get updates. Third-party software developers who license important operating files must distribute and install IE, plus deploy technologies Microsoft owns on web pages that work only with IE. Many new Microsoft software applications and tools won't work unless IE is installed. And now Microsoft is rewriting Windows 98 so it will be impossible to uninstall IE.

Microsoft also wants to redefine Windows as the "Windows Experience," with desktop links to partners and subsidiaries in electronic commerce.

Microsoft constantly changes Windows operating files, adding undocumented features. Microsoft's applications programmers see these files long before everyone else, are permitted to distribute them first, and are the only ones who know what the code does and how it will change over time. It is no accident that Microsoft's competitors have trouble offering products which are both compatible and good performers.

In addition to tying disputes, policymakers should focus on problems arising from the need for information technologies to interoperate with each other. One model for this is the 1984 IBM agreement with the European Commission to enhance competition in computer mainframe networks.

Software is no longer about spreadsheets and word processors only. It is increasingly about content, commerce and communications. No one firm should control the architecture for the information highway.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and James Love is director of Consumer Project on Technology (