What the Web Wants
Thursday, June 8, 2000 by Dave Winer.
Today, after reading and pointing to editorials about yesterday's Microsoft decision in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, Seattle Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, I felt that one point of view was missing, the view from the Web.
That's the purpose of this piece, to explain what (I think) the Web wants to happen here. It isn't what the court wants, and it isn't what Microsoft wants.
The court's decision, and to a lesser extent Microsoft, views the software world through old glasses. Lumping all Microsoft applications, including the browser, into a single company is senseless. A more useful dividing line is old versus new. In 1993, a shift began in the personal computer software business, instead of dominating the whole market, as Microsoft did briefly between 1990 and 1993, it became a three-part market, web-server, web-workstation and web-client; and Microsoft did not dominate any of these markets.
Along comes Netscape, an opportunist, packaging part of Tim Berners-Lee's vision of a networked writing environment (the reading part), and with great success, builds a community of developers and users, and ignites a firestorm of growth that only now is slowing, and I believe slowing only temporarily, while an investment community drunk with unprecedented profits, comes back to earth and in a sense, now the real work of creating the Web begins.
Netscape, a visible symbol, was one of the most poorly managed companies we've ever seen in this industry. There are good reasons to believe, that even without Microsoft's unfair and overly aggressive competition, that they would have self-destructed. When they released their browser as open source, an act of desperation, Netscape was the most-used browser on the Internet, Microsoft was number two. In selling out they sold out the medium that developed around their browser, and we were lucky to have Microsoft there to pick up the ball, and to act as a balance against the growing power (even dominance) of AOL.
(AOL could help settle this issue by making a commitment to Netscape, which it owns. So far AOL has largely been silent on the future of the Netscape browser. I asked Steve Case about this at a press conference in Davos. Their bundling deal with Microsoft prevents them from making a commitment to the Netscape browser, he explained. Such double-talk, easy to settle. And what a difference strong support for the Web from AOL would make.)
Yet today it's still largely a one-browser world. I've asked this question at every speaking engagement I've had in the last two months. "Is this a workable situation?" My opinion is that it is not. Without competition, Microsoft is unlikely to improve the browser in ways that are meaningful to Web users, developers and businesses. The court is right to be concerned that Microsoft will tie its dominance of the browser market to gain dominance in related markets, the explosive ones that are fueling so much growth. This is the question that must be addressed in the change that's coming.
Crippling Microsoft is not a good idea, but enabling competition in the browser market is fair and essential. The court has said that it does not trust Microsoft, neither does the Web. If Microsoft people reflect on this, there's a discomfort in having no competition in this vital space, but regardless of how Microsoft feels about this, something must be done, and the Jackson remedy does not address it.
In previous pieces I've called on the parties to settle on a compromise. Instead of splitting Microsoft along OS vs application lines, do a more modest split, remove the browser from Microsoft, creating an independent company to continue the work of Netscape. The new company, call it BrowserCo, would be allowed to make an operating system, but Microsoft would not be allowed to make a Web browser, until a competitive market developed, and then only under very restrictive conditions.
It's a relatively small job to add APIs to Windows to allow the HTML rendering engine (another way of describing a Web browser) to be a plug-in. The user would be offered a choice of browsers, none of which would be pre-installed with Windows. The BrowserCo browser would be on the list, but it could not be the first choice for ten years, to allow the browser market to recover.
Further, Microsoft would have two years to make software that allows Windows applications to run on Unix systems. This transition would address the larger issue of Microsoft's control of application development, based on the assumption that non-HTML-based software will play an important role in the future of the Web. This is no longer much of a theory, since chat, email, games, and Napster-like products all run outside of the browser. Many more such applications are coming.
Today, an open source project, WINE, does a good job of running Windows apps on Linux. With two years help from Microsoft, parity could be reached, and Microsoft's dominance in native apps would be erased, without a major disruption in the market or inside Microsoft, or in the Web developer world.
These remedies are realistic and fair. The punishment fits the crime, and the structural issues are cleared for the Web to go forward, where it wants to go, not where the government says it wants to go, or Microsoft.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the remedy is that it does not tilt the table in favor of competitors like Sun and AOL, which would not be a positive outcome. We don't want competitors bringing their case to the courts on a regular basis, we want a market that embraces competition, and routes around outages. The outcome must not favor Sun or AOL in any way, in fact, since they behave much like Microsoft in the market, they must accept some of the pain of the resolution.
I believe this remedy should be acceptable to Microsoft, now that they've had a chance to see the remedy that will be imposed on them if they don't come to the table with a serious proposal. The plaintiffs will have their victory, which they deserve, and our thanks for helping us fix the problem with the Web that has existed since the unweblike opportunists, including Microsoft, moved in.
I encourage Microsoft to swallow the pill, as painful as it may be, there is no growth without pain. It's time for Microsoft to morph into a leader, one that cares about the ecology of the environment they exist in. Unchecked, Microsoft is a dangerous element in our market. With a softer approach, one with limits, Microsoft can morph to become a true leader, and help us get to a place where computers are mere tools (not expressions of power) which, imho, is all they were ever meant to be.
Bill, I was in the audience in Davos earlier this year when you announced the $750 million gift to the health of the world's children. This was a poignant moment for me, I wrote about it earlier. But there's a point I have not written about.
Some of your generosity must now be directed towards the industry you helped create. It's not OK to make us wait for you to attain a personal victory. Speeches about prevailing, or appealing, are leading to a conclusion that's hurting all of us. You could have woken up to this at any point in the last six years. Stop fighting. Give. Say uncle and mean it. And then do it again and again. (We all do it, that's what life is about.)
The desktop computer market is your home, but it's one you share with many millions of people. Your wealth can help solve important problems like immunization. That's great. But your leverage is much higher here, now.
You have been reluctant to lead our industry. At times, you've taken a stand, now it's time to up the ante. It's time to have a vision, to be a leader that takes us somewhere we want to go.
Bill, charity begins at home.
The US government is not a friend of the Web.
In formulating this settlement, I took that into consideration. Two branches of the US government, Congress and the Executive, passed and signed the Communication Decency Act, which was later overturned by the Judicial branch as unconstitutional. This act, had the court not rejected it, would have destroyed the Web as a medium of free expression. I am not so naive as to believe they did not understand this.
The US government has also crippled the Internet by placing export restrictions on encryption software. The installed base of email software has no effective way of identifying the sender of a message, or keeping the content of messages private. The technology to do this has existed for over a decade, and if it weren't for the control of US government, I believe it would be universally deployed now.
Further, the US government, while it's decrying the lack of competition created by a dominant software vendor, is issuing paper monopolies to a hoard of greedy opportunists, destroying any semblance of competitiveness in the industry they profess to care about so much.
A complete examination of this case, all sides of it, exposes a corrupt system, based on lies, and control and greed. The purpose of the Web is to route around all that, to enable the power of the individual, and to undermine the power of the old to control the new.
I want the Web to be the winner in this case, and that requires an adjustment of the remedy. Instead of destroying Microsoft, let's do something that enables the power of the new public communication space, the World Wide Web.
Thanks for listening.