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Open source, instead of breakup, is the way to make Microsoft obey

Shawn P. McCarthy

The Justice Department won't achieve its antitrust goals by breaking up Microsoft Corp.

Instead, the department should either move the company toward open-source development or forget about the whole thing.

Watching Microsoft get carved up like an overstuffed turkey would gratify its enemies in the software industry. Microsoft has crushed dozens of smaller vendors and has kept some truly wonderful technologies from making it into the mainstream.

A few years ago, I sold my beloved Macintosh to buy a PC running Windows, and I have never forgiven Bill Gates.

But Justice must take a long view of what's good for the industry, good for the government and good for the Internet.

Microsoft's real franchise consists of its operating systems. If they are spun off into a separate company, so what? It's still a monopoly under a different guise. Nothing is fixed.

Not bundled tight

Maybe the Internet Explorer browser won't come bundled with Windows in the future, but because it's now the browser of choice, it will remain so for quite a while, no matter what happens to the parent company.

Segmenting it would create two or three little monopolies instead of one big one.

If Justice truly wants to foster competition and force Microsoft to play by new rules, there's a better tactic: Make the Windows source code available to all'an open standard that anyone can adopt, repackage and reuse.

Look at how Linux did it for a workable model.

The only way competition can return to the PC world is on a playing field that's level right down to the industry standards.

Gates said in February that he'd be willing to take such an approach to settle the lawsuit.

Now that appeals are on the way, the Justice Department should seriously revisit the issue.

In the Linux world, anyone who modifies the OS has to make the modifications available to others as open-source code.

Users pick up the best modifications, and the code moves on toward greater excellence.

Opening up Windows code wouldn't put Microsoft out of business. The company would stay intact, but the way it competes would change. It would need to grow a large service branch to concentrate on implementation. It would have to compete in service, innovation and integration with other software, not just in applications it makes and controls.

Think what users could do with the code. They could strip out 80 percent of the garbage. As a client, Windows is a digital elephant, but there's no reason it couldn't be slimmed down to fit a new thin-client model.

A thin desktop client could call centralized applications on the server that might or might not be part of Microsoft's Office suite.

Microsoft could build new lines of business such as a service bureau to set up such installations in public- and private-sector offices.

Think about it

Imagine specialized, fast, smoothly running new versions of the OS for scientific, business and education users.

Right now, Visual Basic and Visual J++ develop Windows-only applications. They funnel the apps directly to Microsoft's proprietary application programming interfaces. If the company no longer owned the APIs, however, its motivation would change. Development tools with true multiplatform capabilities would evolve.

Once Microsoft began competing in the open-source, multi-OS world it would discover it could make lots of money by porting its Office applications to Unix, just as it ported them to Mac OS.

On the browser front, the effect of this approach would be less profound. Browsers already follow open standards. But Internet Explorer would lose some of its dominance as various versions of Windows evolved, some with and some without the browser attached.

Specialty browser versions would likely pop up, too, for functions such as medical and kiosk programs.

As for the applications, Justice should not touch them.

They're some of the best in the business, and Microsoft deserves to keep them as a core part of its operation.

Time for a break

To check out additional ideas about how to break up the company, visit www.breakupmicrosoft.org, a site sponsored by a group of disgruntled webmasters.

As for how Microsoft thinks it can spur innovation by control, visit www.microsoft.com/freedomtoinnovate/default.htm.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos.com.

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