Concluding the Microsoft Trial
Thursday, June 3, 1999 by Dave Winer.
And good morning DaveNet readers!
I've been following the Microsoft trial from a distance, waiting to pass judgment on the issues until it was closer to conclusion. Now the thinking is over, and it's time to start writing. Your comments are appreciated. Let's figure this one out.
From my point of view, HTML rendering very much belongs in the operating system. Microsoft's argument that the dividing line between applications and the system is fluid matches my experience, not just with Microsoft's system software, but with Apple's and other systems too, including Unix. If you compared today's Unix to the one I used when I was a student in the 1970s, you'd see clearly how time makes an OS bigger, and over time things that were applications inevitably become features of the operating system, again, not just with Windows, with all OSes.
I have also been an observer of the "browser war" between Microsoft and Netscape between 1995 and the present day. Now that Netscape is part of AOL, the war seems to be over. I wrote frequently about the war while it was raging, urging Netscape not to go into a direct faceoff with Microsoft, and pleading with Microsoft to leave Netscape alone for fear of limiting the growth of the web. I exchanged private emails with Marc Andreessen, the public spokesperson for Netscape. I talked with Netscape officers and board members. I emailed and spoke with Microsoft people from top to bottom. I feel very strongly that Netscape defined the terms of competition with Microsoft, they were overly confident, picked a poor strategy, and lost because of that, not because of bad character or practice at Microsoft.
I also appreciate the opportunity to see the emails that Microsoft people exchanged over this subject. Clearly Microsoft could use an attitude transformation. They are far more destructive and negative than I would like them to be. I have also publicly urged Microsoft to learn to be more statesmanlike, to behave like the great company they have actually become.
I predicted that they would get mired in legal hassles like this, not because of their strategies, which are reasonable, but are obfuscated by their tactics. I was visiting Microsoft the day their trick on Judge Jackson became public, and on that day I said to the people I was visiting that I was ashamed to be part of the software business because of what Microsoft was doing. It was a game they couldn't win. Jackson is like a customer. You don't want to see customers humiliated in public at the hands of a mere software vendor.
But we can put that behind us. Clearly Microsoft will be more careful in the future. I think they got the message here. And I don't think AOL management will engage Microsoft at the level that Netscape did. I think either the browser war is over, or it's moving to a new more subtle level of sophistication.
So, as a software developer and a person with a sense of right and wrong, and a stake in its outcome, here's what I'd like to see come out of the browser war and the trial that resulted from it
First, I do not want to see Microsoft penalized for the demise of Netscape. It's impossible to know to what extent Microsoft is responsible for that. Netscape played stupid and dirty, if they had executed even reasonably well, I believe they would have established a niche that Microsoft would not have been able to undermine.
Further, Netscape blew a major opportunity with independent web developers, a powerful body of talent, who as a group did not and still do not see themselves as Microsoft developers. The opportunity that Netscape abandoned is still there. AOL would do well to stop disclaiming any interest in the browser, and get busy with the real work of building systems designed for web developers and their users. The court has encouraged irresponsible behavior on AOL's part, and as a member of the web developer world I do not appreciate this!
Further, the HTML renderer, the software at issue in this case, definitely has a place in the operating system. As Microsoft has built software that depends on this, so have many developers, including my company. It helps the simplification process, both for users and for developers. The same skills apply no matter what software they're using. And the same code can run either from a remote server or from server software located on the user's hard disk. To force removal of the HTML renderer from the OS would be a major setback to the growth of the web, both as a medium for e-commerce, but also as a literary and journalistic medium.
As a developer of software for both the Mac OS and Windows, I strongly believe that the Mac OS is at a disadvantage because it doesn't have system-level HTML rendering. To me this is the key test. I would prefer to see HTML rendering in the Mac OS, not have it taken out of Windows.
So I think the best most positive conclusion is to require that Microsoft open up HTML rendering to other software, including Netscape's, but also to software from other developers. I want an API in place, and a system-level "Control Panel" that allows the user to choose his or her favorite rendering engine. Hardware OEMs must have a choice about how that is configured, and Microsoft must learn how to ship and support systems that allow the OEMs basic branding choices.
To argue otherwise, on Microsoft's part, is disingenuous. Of course they can support systems that use Netscape's rendering engine. This is a responsible thing to do for their customers, many of whom would prefer to use Netscape's software over Microsoft's. Microsoft claims to be customer-driven, so let the customers drive. They want choice. Give it to them.
Further, I would like to see Microsoft unilateraly concede that all future "assumptions" of functionality in the OS will provide a similar control panel and customer choice. It's a fact that Windows is the dominant OS and that their practices have served to limit customer choice. They must correct this, and in order for it to work the solution must be self-imposed and real. Microsoft must learn to restrain their own power. I believe that's what the case is really about. Connecting with Microsoft at this level.
It's time for Microsoft to act in favor of the big picture, not just in Microsoft's limited perception of its self-interest. This is what has gotten them in trouble, and this and only this is what must change. The world has grown outside of Microsoft's reach. This is good! There's nothing Microsoft can do about this. And there's nothing the government should have to do that Microsoft can't do for itself. Gates is right, it's a fluid business. Now he's got to realign with reality.
He wasn't powerful enough to erase Netscape, he needed Netscape's help to do that, and it's not even over yet, nor will it be if AOL does a reasonable job of managing Netscape. And Netscape is just a small part of it. There are lots of leaks in the Microsoft boat, if their goal is to dominate all software-related activity. The world wants some of what Microsoft offers, but they want to buy from others too. That won't change. It's time for Microsoft to open itself up, join the rest of the industry, learn how to work with others and stop being so obsessed with its own process. This would be good for Microsoft, not bad.
So, to me, as an independent software developer, I'm looking to Microsoft to overcome its own history and the history of the software industry, to assume a position of true leadership, not to wait for a decision to be handed down by the court. I want Microsoft to take real steps to reform itself, some reasonable rules that they must operate under. To start conversing with the industry they lead, as a leader would.
Thanks for listening!
PS: To conclude is to "decide by reasoning." A conclusion is "a judgment reached after consideration." To reform is to "change for the better as a result of correcting abuses." To obfuscate is to "make obscure or unclear."