Reinventing Microsoft

What sings with clarity in a federal judge's findings about Microsoft's bully tactics is that the company stifled innovation in the computer industry.

If it couldn't buy up a budding rival's hot product, Microsoft used its gorilla market clout to beat it back. Consumers were denied many creative advances, the judge found.

In coming months, the court will decide if Microsoft broke the law and, if so, how to fix the company. Its decision should rely on society's strong interest in technical innovation and on the scientific discovery that continues to liberate us from many limited ideas of human potential.

But the courts and Justice officials must be careful themselves not to stymie innovation by imposing a bureaucratic hand that can easily misread the unpredictable, creative momentum of the fast-paced computer industry.

The best path, of course, would be for Microsoft to avoid years of litigation and a tarnished reputation by settling. That might require spinning off parts of the company, both to reduce Microsoft's dominance and to ensure unfettered innovation.

Microsoft's worst fear has long been that it wasn't innovative enough, or couldn't be if it wanted to preserve its franchise. The company, for instance, did not want its own new products to jeopardize it huge market base of Windows users.

But, more importantly, it also feared that its operating system could be easily tidal-waved with what the industry calls "the next big thing," such as the free and relatively crash-less Linux operating system or the Web-based software applications that don't need Windows.

That underlying worry goes back to Microsoft's origins and is summed up in Bill Gates' own words: "Success today is no guarantee of success tomorrow."

In the late 1970s, Microsoft bought rather than invented the basic digital operating system, or DOS, and then persuaded the leading computer maker, IBM, to use it as the standard for the PC market in the 1980s. Microsoft rode into dominance on the back of IBM's dominance and a consumer desire for a universal software "platform."

When threatened by the more innovative, user-friendly Apple operating system, it imitated Apple's "look" to design the post-DOS Windows. When threatened by Netscape's Internet browser, it secretly offered to divide up the market, and then forced PC makers to use only Microsoft's browser.

And so on, as detailed in Friday's court decision.

IBM fell from its Olympian heights on the false assumption that innovation takes place in material things - the hardware of PCs - rather than the ethereal realm of software.

Microsoft, too, may fall from its lofty success because it chose to protect its profits and market share more than seeing that the best competition lies in a nurturing a more expansive view of the infinite ideas and ingenuity that this industry provides daily.

As Microsoft is morphed - or morphs itself - into being more cutting edge than cunning foe, we should be grateful for the innovations it has brought us - and hope for more.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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