3. Battle

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.


The world where cash was king, greed was good, and money was power fell off its axis and stopped rotating, if only for a second, in January 1999. Microsoft, the great software giant and unstoppable engine of cash, was defending itself in a courtroom in Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice claimed that Microsoft was a monopoly and was using this power to cut off competitors. Microsoft denied it all and claimed that the world was hurling threat after competitive threat its way. They weren't a monopoly, they were just a very competitive company that managed to withstand the slings and arrows of other equally ruthless competitors out to steal its market share.


The trial quickly turned into everyone's worst nightmare as the lawyers, the economists, and the programmers filled the courtroom with a thick mixture of technobabble and legal speak. On the stands, the computer nerds spewed out three-letter acronyms (TLAs) as they talked about creating operating systems. Afterward, the legal nerds started slicing them up into one-letter acronyms and testing to see just which of the three letters was really the one that committed the crime. Then the economists came forward and offered their theories on just when a monopoly is a monopoly. Were three letters working in collusion enough? What about two? Everyone in the courtroom began to dread spending the day cooped up in a small room as Microsoft tried to deny what was obvious to practically everyone.


In the fall and early winter of 1998 and 1999, the Department of Justice had presented its witnesses, who explained how Microsoft had slanted contracts, tweaked software, and twisted arms to ensure that it and it alone got the lion's share of the computer business. Many watching the trial soon developed the opinion that Microsoft had adopted a mixture of tactics from the schoolyard bully, the local mob boss, and the mother from hell. The Department of Justice trotted out a number of witnesses who produced ample evidence that suggested the computer customers of the world will buy Microsoft products unless Microsoft decides otherwise. Competitors must be punished.


By January, the journalists covering the trial were quietly complaining about this endless waste of time. The Department of Justice's case was so compelling that they saw the whole trial as just a delay in what would eventually come to be a ruling that would somehow split or shackle Microsoft.


But Microsoft wasn't going to be bullied or pushed into splitting up. The trial allowed them to present their side of the story, and they had one ready. Sure, everyone seemed to use Microsoft products, but that was because they were great. It wasn't because there weren't any competitors, but because the competitors just weren't good enough.


In the middle of January, Richard Schmalensee, the dean of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took the stand to defend Microsoft. Schmalensee had worked for the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice as an economist who examined the marketplace and the effects of anti-competitive behavior. He studied how monopolies behave, and to him Microsoft had no monopoly power. Now, he was being paid handsomely by Microsoft as an expert witness to repeat this view in court.


Schmalensee's argument was simple: competitors are popping up all over the place. Microsoft, he said in his direct testimony, "is in a constant struggle for competitive survival. That struggle--the race to win and the victor's perpetual fear of being displaced--is the source of competitive vitality in the microcomputer software industry."


Schmalensee even had a few competitors ready. "The iMac clearly competes directly and fiercely with Intel-compatible computers running Windows," he said without mentioning that Microsoft had bailed out Apple several months before with hundreds of millions of dollars in an investment. When Steve Jobs, the iCEO of Apple, announced the deal to a crowd of Mac lovers, the crowd booed. Jobs quieted them and tried to argue that the days of stiff competition with Microsoft were over. The scene did such a good job of capturing the total domination of Microsoft that the television movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley used it to illustrate how Bill Gates had won all of the marbles.


After the announcement of the investment, Apple began shipping Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser as the preferred browser on its machines. Microsoft's competitor Netscape became just a bit harder to find on the iMac. After that deal, Steve Jobs even began making statements that the old sworn enemies, Apple and Microsoft, were now more partners than competitors. Schmalensee didn't focus on this facet of Apple's new attitude toward competition.


Next, Schmalensee trotted out BeOS, an operating system made by Be, a small company with about 100 employees run by ex-Apple executive Jean-Louis Gass e. This company had attracted millions of dollars in funding, he said, and some people really liked it. That made it a competitor.


Schmalensee didn't mention that Be had trouble giving away the BeOS operating system. Gass e approached a number of PC manufacturers to see if they would include BeOS on their machines and give users the chance to switch between two operating systems. Gass e found, to no one's real surprise, that Microsoft's contracts with manufacturers made it difficult, if not practically impossible, to get BeOS in customers' hands. Microsoft controlled much of what the user got to see and insisted on almost total control over the viewer's experience. Schmalensee didn't mention these details in his testimony. BeOS may have been as locked up as a prisoner in a windowless cell in a stone-walled asylum on an island in the middle of the ocean, but BeOS was still a competitor for the love of the fair maiden.


The last competitor, though, was the most surprising to everyone. Schmalensee saw Linux, a program given away for free, as a big potential competitor. When he said Linux, he really meant an entire collection of programs known as "open source" software. These were written by a loose-knit group of programmers who shared all of the source code to the software over the Internet.


Open source software floated around the Internet controlled by a variety of licenses with names like the GNU General Public License (GPL). To say that the software was "controlled" by the license is a bit of a stretch. If anything, the licenses were deliberately worded to prohibit control. The GNU GPL, for instance, let users modify the program and give away their own versions. The license did more to enforce sharing of all the source code than it did to control or constrain. It was more an anti-license than anything else, and its author, Richard Stallman, often called it a "copyleft."


Schmalensee didn't mention that most people thought of Linux as a strange tool created and used by hackers in dark rooms lit by computer monitors. He didn't mention that many people had trouble getting Linux to work with their computers. He forgot to mention that Linux manuals came with subheads like "Disk Druid-like 'fstab editor' available." He didn't delve into the fact that for many of the developers, Linux was just a hobby they dabbled with when there was nothing interesting on television. And he certainly didn't mention that most people thought the whole Linux project was the work of a mad genius and his weirdo disciples who still hadn't caught on to the fact that the Soviet Union had already failed big-time. The Linux folks actually thought sharing would make the world a better place. Fat-cat programmers who spent their stock-option riches on Porsches and balsamic vinegar laughed at moments like this.
Schmalensee didn't mention these facts. He just offered Linux as an alternative to Windows and said that computer manufacturers might switch to it at any time. Poof. Therefore, Microsoft had competitors. At the trial, the discourse quickly broke down into an argument over what is really a worthy competitor and what isn't. Were there enough applications available for Linux or the Mac? What qualifies as "enough"? Were these really worthy?


Under cross-examination, Schmalensee explained that he wasn't holding up the Mac, BeOS, or Linux as competitors who were going to take over 50 percent of the marketplace. He merely argued that their existence proved that the barriers produced by the so-called Microsoft monopoly weren't that strong. If rational people were investing in creating companies like BeOS, then Microsoft's power wasn't absolute.
Afterward, most people quickly made up their minds. Everyone had heard about the Macintosh and knew that back then conventional wisdom dictated that it would soon fail. But most people didn't know anything about BeOS or Linux. How could a company be a competitor if no one had heard of it? Apple and Microsoft had TV commercials. BeOS, at least, had a charismatic chairman. There was no Linux pitchman, no Linux jingle, and no Linux 30-second spot in major media. At the time, only the best-funded projects in the Linux community had enough money to buy spots on late-night community-access cable television. How could someone without money compete with a company that hired the Rolling Stones to pump excitement into a product launch?


When people heard that Microsoft was offering a free product as a worthy competitor, they began to laugh even louder at the company's chutzpah. Wasn't money the whole reason the country was having a trial? Weren't computer programmers in such demand that many companies couldn't hire as many as they needed, no matter how high the salary? How could Microsoft believe that anyone would buy the supposition that a bunch of pseudo-communist nerds living in their weird techno-utopia where all the software was free would ever come up with software that could compete with the richest company on earth? At first glance, it looked as if Microsoft's case was sinking so low that it had to resort to laughable strategies. It was as if General Motors were to tell the world "We shouldn't have to worry about fixing cars that pollute because a collective of hippies in Ithaca, New York, is refurbishing old bicycles and giving them away for free." It was as if Exxon waved away the problems of sinking oil tankers by explaining that folksingers had written a really neat ballad for teaching birds and otters to lick themselves clean after an oil spill. If no one charged money for Linux, then it was probably because it wasn't worth buying.
But as everyone began looking a bit deeper, they began to see that Linux was being taken seriously in some parts of the world. Many web servers, it turned out, were already running on Linux or another free cousin known as FreeBSD. A free webserving tool known as Apache had controlled more than 50 percent of the web servers for some time, and it was gradually beating out Microsoft products that cost thousands of dollars. Many of the web servers ran Apache on top of a Linux or a FreeBSD machine and got the job done. The software worked well, and the nonexistent price made it easy to choose.


Linux was also winning over some of the world's most serious physicists, weapons designers, biologists, and hard-core scientists. Some of the nation's top labs had wired together clusters of cheap PCs and turned them into supercomputers that were highly competitive with the best machines on the market. One upstart company started offering "supercomputers" for $3,000. These machines used Linux to keep the data flowing while the racks of computers plugged and chugged their way for hours on complicated simulations.


There were other indications. Linux users bragged that their system rarely crashed. Some claimed to have machines that had been running for a year or more without a problem. Microsoft (and Apple) users, on the other hand, had grown used to frequent crashes. The "Blue Screen of Death" that appears on Windows users' monitors when something goes irretrievably wrong is the butt of many jokes.


Linux users also bragged about the quality of their desktop interface. Most of the uninitiated thought of Linux as a hacker's system built for nerds. Yet recently two very good operating shells called GNOME and KDE had taken hold. Both offered the user an environment that looked just like Windows but was better. Linux hackers started bragging that they were able to equip their girlfriends, mothers, and friends with Linux boxes without grief. Some people with little computer experience were adopting Linux with little trouble.


Building websites and supercomputers is not an easy task, and it is often done in back rooms out of the sight of most people. When people began realizing that the free software hippies had slowly managed to take over a large chunk of the web server and supercomputing world, they realized that perhaps Microsoft's claim was viable. Web servers and supercomputers are machines built and run by serious folks with bosses who want something in return for handing out paychecks. They aren't just toys sitting around the garage.


If these free software guys had conquered such serious arenas, maybe they could handle the office and the desktop. If the free software world had created something usable by the programmers' mothers, then maybe they were viable competitors. Maybe Microsoft was right.