Lifting Bill Gates's Thumb

If Microsoft and its chairman Bill Gates truly "placed an oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune," as a federal judge ruled on April 3, the practical question for computer users is whether the thumb has been lifted.

Consumers have always come first, Mr. Gates claims in his defense. An appeals court will agree, he hopes. No need for a court to alter Microsoft. Why worry about process (fair competition) when Microsoft consumers have been given so many benefits?

Well, if benefits (or the ends) justify the means, here's one big benefit that consumers now enjoy just because of the suit against Microsoft: The hottest part of the computer software market - the operating systems that run larger computers - is very competitive.

Why? The heat of the antimonopoly suit has helped prevent Microsoft from trying to undermine its main competitor in that market, Red Hat Software. Red Hat is the leading supplier of an alternative operating system called Linux. It has found willing customers, such as Compaq, IBM, and other computermakers that tired of Microsoft's bullying tactics.

In fact, Microsoft faces competition on many new fronts as the industry shifts from desktop PCs to Internet-only machines and other devices. The Justice Department's suit may have been aimed at a fast-moving target, but, like the boy who saw no clothes on the emperor, it has given companies the courage to challenge Microsoft's dominance, and sent a signal to consumers to demand more choices and openness.

That doesn't mean Microsoft is not still trying to use its large market share in operating systems to dominate new fields, or that the court should not punish it and correct its ways. Critics say the company is trying to hijack a publicly accepted standard for security on the Web to boost its software.

But the suit and the court judgment have struck a blow for openness and fairness in the industry. And we can all be thumbs up about that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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