Take Your Choice: Apple or IBM, It's Still Microsoft

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

My office has become an electronic dueling ground. On one side sits my Pentium computer; on the other, a brand-new Power Macintosh. Both machines claim to offer the best platform for desktop computing. In a few weeks, they'll battle for my heart.

For the moment, I shuttle between the two, loading new software here, typing in a macro there. This back-and-forth dalliance puts a new perspective on things. But no matter who wins the duel, the real victor will be an onlooker peering from the woods.

It didn't hit me until I started playing with the Mac how dependent we've become on a single software company. Look for Mac business software and you can't help running into Microsoft. Turn on a rival Pentium, or any IBM-compatible machine, and it's almost impossible not to bump into a DOS prompt or Windows logo, both courtesy of Microsoft.

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These are vague misgivings, I know. But others are voicing them too.

Last month, US District Judge Stanley Sporkin rejected the antitrust settlement Microsoft had worked out with the Justice Department, saying it was too narrow. Signing it would have sent a message, he said, ''that Microsoft is so powerful that neither the market nor the government is capable of dealing with all its monopolistic practices.''

Many antitrust experts expect the judge to be overruled and Microsoft will merely get its wrists slapped. But Lotus President Jim Manzi suggests that antitrust laws be overhauled to take account of Microsoft's new kind of technology-based monopoly. Meanwhile, the chairman of Europe's largest computer dealer made headlines last week, saying he would not ship machines loaded with Microsoft's DOS. Imagine that! Making news for not including a piece of software.

The issue came clear for me when I started looking for Mac software. Claris, originally part of Apple Computer, pioneered software for the platform, but Microsoft is the revenue leader. Want to buy a full-featured spreadsheet for the Mac? Claris and Lotus have all but dropped out of the market. Microsoft is the only major company selling one.

If the Microsoft juggernaut has already taken over certain areas of the Macintosh world, it's not hard to imagine it will do the same in the much larger IBM-compatible universe. The company's DOS and Windows software already run an estimated 4 of every 5 desktop computers in the world. Critics say the company has used that leverage in operating systems to bolster its position in software applications.

I don't know if that's true. But the signs are worrying. After besting such software rivals as Borland and IBM, Microsoft wants to buy Intuit, the leading maker of personal-finance and tax software. It has branched out into the fast-growing CD-ROM business at a time when many of its rivals are merging or failing because of lack of funds. And it plans to launch an on-line service that has veterans of that industry deeply worried.

I am not bashing Microsoft. The company has succeeded largely because it outsmarted rival IBM at key junctures and it has developed excellent software. Its dominance has actually unified the IBM-compatible world around the Windows standard.

The problem is where this trend is leading. If Microsoft takes over the software industry, computer users will have fewer choices in software, less innovation, and higher prices. So strike a blow for diversity! Take a look at OS/2. Consider a Macintosh or some other platform. If a Microsoft program is the best tool for you, buy it. But don't overlook the software offerings from others. After all, the romance of desktop computing is a fragile thing. If everyone has to date Microsoft, it just won't be special anymore.

*Send comments via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654), or America Online (LBELSIE).

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