Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas

Becky Hogge
25 April 2006

"This is the world according to Microsoft where it decides what is best for consumers."

So said Per Hellstrom on Monday, in his opening speech for the European Commission (EC), where the software giant is fighting an appeal against the EC's 2004 judgment that its business practices are anti-competitive. The case is associated with the largest financial penalty in history, with an original levy of 497 million euros and further fines for non-compliance to other stipulations threatened at 2 million euros per day. But it is not just fines that hang in the balance this week. If the European Commission's ruling stands, then Microsoft will again be asked to revisit its practice of shipping software with operating systems and keeping its code secret from competitors, just as it is driving its new operating system, Vista, onto market. A ruling in favour of Microsoft, however, will throw into question the authority of the EC's Competition Directorate General.

But what is "the world according to Microsoft" and how much does it have to do with the virtual – and real – world of 2006?

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor.

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

These days, the software that comes on your computer is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. On a broadband connection, you can download fresh software in a matter of minutes, from stand alone graphics applications like the GIMP photo editor, to browsers, to whole operating systems. How bizarre, then, that the antitrust (in the US) and anti-competitiveness (EU) cases against Microsoft were prompted all those years ago by concerns that shipping software packages like Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player with the Windows operating system would close the market to rival software providers. Indeed, Google Pack – the free suite of software offered by Google – contains at its heart Mozilla Firefox, the popular open source web browser that was once Netscape, the so-called loser in Microsoft's browser wars.

In the developing world, where broadband has yet to reach, it is still Microsoft, not its competitors, caught squarely on the back foot these days. Bill Gates has had to visit many countries personally (most recently Vietnam, but also Brazil and China) in order to secure the market for Microsoft against either pervasive pirating of Microsoft products or competition from the free, open source operating system Linux. You can see why some might need persuading: Linux presents a free and usually more secure option, as well as offering the opportunity to nurture native coding talent. The costs to a developing country of licensing Microsoft products are often prohibitive, until Gates flies in to cut a deal.

Although some might argue that competition from Linux should be enough to have Microsoft quaking in its boots, a more powerful competitor has emerged over the past two years: Google. No longer just a search engine, Google offers email, photo-sharing, news, social-networking and diary-management, and looks set to offer even more in the future. In March, it bought the online word processing platform Writely, which could be a real competitor to Microsoft Word once it has been developed.

Google and Microsoft couldn't do business more differently. Google works with the open standards of the net, not a closed operating system, and although Google does keep the algorithms that drive its search engine secret, it releases interfaces to many of its programs which let coders build products and services around them.

Online is where it's at these days, so consumers may not be swayed to go with what Microsoft provides on the desktop when better products are just a click away. Why settle for Windows Live, when you could have Google Homepage, or Netvibes? Smaller companies are able to innovate faster and, crucially, will often offer up interfaces for "bedroom coders" to make complementary features, to further accelerate the pace of change. Can Windows really compete?

Even on its own terms, Microsoft has been underperforming. The much hyped Longhorn project – Microsoft's next generation operating system – has now emerged as Vista, a product almost as banal as its globo-friendly name when compared with the hopes Microsoft had for it during its 2003 preview. Following delay after delay, the operating system looks likely to ship to the masses in 2007.

Four years is a long time to spend building a new operating system when you're the world's leading software company. Although Microsoft maintain that the delays have been caused by security concerns, it is rumoured that the root of the problem was the integration, deep into the fabric of the code, of Digital Rights Management systems – software designed to stop people manipulating, copying and distributing copyrighted material over the net – which later proved unfeasible.

As I have argued in this column before, the future of the internet - for society and for business - lies in open standards, and the free movement of content across platforms and portals. When it stood up to Microsoft's anti-competitiveness practice, the European Commission demonstrated its understanding of this, just as the EU parliament did when it voted to reject software patents last year. Whatever verdict is served in Brussels this week, it's important to understand that a different kind of verdict is being served in the market.

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