Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 24, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

PINING AWAY FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF NETSCAPE....Brad DeLong makes the case that Microsoft really has harmed him by including a web browser integrated into Windows:

Remember the days when there was not one single dominant browser that came preinstalled on 95% of PCs sold? Back then there was ferocious competition in the browser market, as first a number of competitors and then Netscape and Microsoft worked furiously to upgrade their browsers and add new features to them. Most of these new features turned out to be idiotic. Some turned out to be very useful. Progress in making better browsers was rapid, because browser-makers wanted to make a better product and any new idea about what a browser should be was rapidly deployed to a large enough user base to make it worthwhile for web designers to try to use the new feature.

And now? There is no progress in browsers at all. Why should anyone (besides crazed open sourcies) write a new browser? Why should Microsoft spend any money improving its browser? The point of giving Internet Explorer away for free is to protect Windows's market, after all.

That's absolutely right, and the same case can be made for the other de facto monopolies Microsoft has, even if they're not tied to preinstallation on Windows. The most notable examples are Word and Excel, which have shown very little serious improvement in years, but also noteworthy is their virtual monopoly on compilers and development systems, something that most people don't understand but that has a clear and insidious effect on what gets supported and what doesn't.

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell and Kieran Healy have some scholarly thoughts to add, but basically agree with Brad. And so do I.

And yet there's a critical piece that's missing here. It's an argument Microsoft makes all the time, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong (although it's surely tempting to think so): should judges be the ones to decide which components should be core pieces of an operating system and which ones shouldn't?

There's a minimalist view that an operating system should basically serve up files and not do much of anything else. Virtually no one holds that view anymore, though, and modern operating systems all include sophisticated UIs, loads of network functionality, drivers for a vast array of devices, email, backup utilities, etc. etc. etc. The list grows at a dizzying rate.

So: is it reasonable for a web browser to be a core part of an operating system? How about a media player? Both, after all, can be thought of merely as ways of controlling and viewing files, albeit rather sophisticated files served up via the internet.

I don't really have a good answer for this, but it's definitely a question worth taking seriously. Regulating general business practices (bundling, for example) is one thing, but directly regulating what can and cannot be part of an operating system is quite another. It's a real headscratcher.

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that I'm only addressing the general question here. In the case of browsers, for example, it's pretty clear from Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's finding of fact in 1999 that Microsoft also engaged in egregious monopolistic behavior that went far beyond simply including a browser in the operating system. They got off awfully lightly in that case, due partly to Jackson's idiotic behavior after he issued his finding, but that's a separate issue.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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