Friday, May 22, 1998


Let Microsoft Evolve the Operating System Any Way They Want

by Claude von Roesgen

The Justice Department should not insist that Microsoft unbundle Internet Explorer from the Windows operating system. In today's world of increased personal computing, an integrated Web browser is a logical extension of the operating system. A few short years ago before the introduction of Windows 95, a high-flying high tech software company, FTP Software Inc., of Andover Massachusetts supplied a key piece of technology for personal computers running MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, called the TCP/IP stack. The TCP/IP stack is the software that allows an operating system to communicate with other computers over the Internet. FTP's stock traded around thirty dollars a share in early 1995. By the spring of 1996 it fell to the low teens because the newly released Windows 95 operating system included the TCP/IP stack free. Nobody complained then that Microsoft destroyed FTP software. Today their stock trades at less than four dollars a share but it's on the way up. They've reinvented themselves and carved out several different niches in the computer networking arena that have not been addressed by Microsoft product offerings.

As information technology evolves, its capability and internal complexity increases. In order to make information technology useful, that complexity has to be hidden from the end user. If the end user had to integrate each new capability as a separate product from a separate vendor, the personal computer industry would quickly cease to evolve because no one would be able to get their computer to work. The recent explosive growth of connectivity to the Internet by the average American citizen can be attributed in no small part to the TCP/IP stack built into Windows 95.

Every software company today has to evaluate the products they design and determine whether or not and when they will become part of the standard operating system package. In the same way that Microsoft lets the baseline operating system capability grow, all software vendors have to stay one step ahead of the competition and continually develop their product. Microsoft already bundles their World Wide Web server software (i.e. Web server software: the software that runs on a Web site and listens for requests from Web browsers delivering the requested Web pages) free with their NT operating system. Lotus Development Corporation, now part of IBM, delivers their Lotus Notes product with a built-in Web server. They realize that the Web-server software is becoming an operating system function because they've configured the next release of Lotus Notes to work seamlessly with either the built-in IBM Web server or the Internet Information Server built into the Windows NT operating system.

Even though the Web browser, Microsoft Internet Explorer, is delivered preinstalled on practically every personal computer sold today, most people still take the trouble to install Netscape Navigator. For example some value-adding services such as on-line banking may be delivered to the banking customer as a CD-ROM that contains nothing more than installation software for Netscape Navigator. Or they install it directly, usually because Netscape Navigator has become synonymous with connectivity to the World Wide Web.

Microsoft has not really done as good a job of associating themselves with the World Wide Web as Netscape has. Ironically the Justice Department suit against Microsoft has probably done more than Microsoft, even with its vast resources, could have done to promote its capability for providing Web surfing capability to the personal computer user.

Some Justice Department complaints against Microsoft are legitimate. Thus, the Justice Department's action against Microsoft's operating system licensing practices towards personal computer manufacturers allows individuals who choose to install a non-Microsoft operating system to escape having to pay for Windows whether they want it or not. This is a well-conceived form of anti-monopolistic activity. Also, if Microsoft were to build special operating system features that only the Microsoft Office developers were told about, that would constitute an unfair advantage that would require Justice Department intervention. But the Justice Department should not be in the business of dictating the end-user feature set of any product or product line.