BOSTON — Most people look through windows -or wash them. But since many don't use them for computing, the battle raging over Microsoft Windows can look confusing or irrelevant.
Big government vs. big company. Unfair monopoly vs. the heavy hand of government.
Consumers haven't yet decided who's right. They know they want a choice in software. But the question remains: What's the best way to make sure they have it - a company free to pursue its own agenda or government regulation to ensure competition?
It comes down to picking the right metaphor.
To Joel Klein, who heads the Justice Department's antitrust division, the verdict is clear. Microsoft is so powerful it's acting like the maker of a compact-disc player dictating which compact discs consumers can buy.
No, that's not it, counters Microsoft. The federal government is trying to force the company to help its competitors.
"It's a little like asking us to include three cans of Pepsi with every six-pack of Coke," says company chairman Bill Gates.
Which metaphor do you believe? Consumers are all over the lot.
"I agree with Bill Gates," says Dwight Kirschmann, who runs an Internet service on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. "Microsoft has a good product in Windows."
"The analogy of Gates is completely wrong," counters Philip Baumeister, a computer user in Sebastopol, Calif. "The correct analogy is that there is a vending machine that only dispenses Coke. You want the vending machine and its convenience of cold drinks, but you want a choice in what it dispenses - Sprite for non-caffeine drinkers. Others like Fanta."
In fact, Microsoft is difficult to characterize because its position is unique in the computer world. It produces Windows, which is the basic software that runs a computer. Microsoft has become so powerful because roughly 9 out of 10 computers sold today run on Windows.
Other firms sell software - such as word-processing and personal-finance programs - that run on top of Windows. But over time Microsoft has incorporated some of those programs into its operating system. Users love the convenience. It's much easier having all-in-one software like Windows rather than buying separate programs to manage memory or put more data onto a hard drive.
IN its latest version of the operating system, called Windows 98, Microsoft has taken a further step. It has made an Internet viewing device, called a browser, an integral part of the basic software. That move brings it into direct competition with the leading browser firm, Netscape.
That kind of takeover irks some users.
"I just couldn't buy that speech from Bill Gates," says a computer programmer at the University of Washington in Seattle. The Coke analogy doesn't work. Windows should be "like you have an electrical system and you plug in whatever toasters you want."
Netscape's browser should be on the same footing as Microsoft's, he argues.
Of course, consumers will still be able to use Netscape's browser, Microsoft points out. And that argument holds water with many consumers.
"I don't understand why there is a big problem since one can download either browser (and others too) from the Internet," says Margaret Bushnell, a Macintosh user.
But will average users really download a second browser when Microsoft already gives them one? The Justice Department doesn't think so. That's why it wants Microsoft to include Netscape's browser with Windows.
Many consumers agree something has to be done.
"The antitrust thing is going in the right direction," says the computer programmer at the University of Washington. "The more techie folks can get all the solutions. But Joe Average is getting locked in."
But that means government tinkering with one of most prominent success stories in the annals of American business. Many consumers cringe at the thought.
"Philosophically speaking, I generally oppose government regulations of this nature,' says says Rick L'Heureux, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur ."The federal and state governments should stay out!"