I DON'T KNOW if it's fair to call Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson a hanging judge, but he's damn straight a man at the end of his rope. If last year's Findings of Fact were comparable to a good novel, the Memorandum and Final Judgment filed last week read like a resignation letter where no bridge need be left unburned. "Untrustworthy?" "Disingenuous?" C'mon, Judge, what do you really think?
The only thing pretty about this trial was Jackson's prose (once again an excellent read, for which he has the thanks of the entire portion of the journalistic community fated to slog through such things). Microsoft officials correctly point out that almost anything can be rethought on appeal, but what we saw through Jackson's eyes in the Findings of Fact was a world like the "before" version in that well-known 1984 Macintosh commercial: all color leached away, and a strange and arbitrary man whipping the proles into mute submission. Imagine Jackson as the woman in the red shorts (oh, quit giggling), imagine this ruling like the hammer through the giant video screen, and imagine the pain if you happen to be the screen.
If you work for Microsoft, no imagination is necessary. Better writers than I (specifically, Seattle Weekly alumnus Fred Moody in his ABCNews tech column) have already looked at the worst human cost of this decision: the rank-and-file employees hurt by Microsoft's woes. No collateral damage is more troubling; no aspect of this more immediately real to the local observer. To say there is a bright side to the fall of Microsoft is not to say that these good people deserve to suffer. Only a brute or an idiot lacks sympathy.
But this decision is not the worst thing that could have happened to the industry; if it were, we wouldn't be here, and all those industry folk (who may hate Bill but don't hate the money he made them, indirectly or no) wouldn't be cheering. It's not even the worst thing that could happen to Microsoft; if it were, the company wouldn't have made such a point of cheesing Jackson off. The last months of the trial turned into a pissing match, with Microsoft making it very clear that as far as the company was concerned this was a matter to be taken over Jackson's head. His disgust with Microsoft and its support in the court of public opinion ("some of it rational"—Judge Jackson, please!) was palpable; if Bill & Co. felt ganged up on by the parade of associates and allies testifying against them, Jackson had to have felt the same about Microsoft's dismissive comments about undoing two years of discovery and rulings at the appeals level.
Jackson's not sorry to see Microsoft go; I'd give a month's salary for a copy of the draft of the final ruling that includes the phrase "don't let the courtroom doors hit you in the ass on your way out." But he may have left the company some lovely parting gifts, whether he meant to or not. Before the Redmond not-at-the-moment-such-a-Menace hauls over to the DC District Court of Appeals, let's sift through the rubble and see why we may not need to call in the Red Cross' emergency services team just yet. Competition, schmompetition; let's find the win for the home team if breakup does, in fact, come to pass.
Everybody Feels Better After A Bath. Let us be frank: Windows is a dirty beast. Deep in the core of the operating system still beats not only the ancient heart of DOS—remember DOS?—but a primeval jungle's worth of legacy code, undocumented calls, and stuff that works but no one's sure how. Well, we're about to find out. Compliance means not only allowing access to the source code and internal documentation, but ensuring continued access to older versions and materials.
The implications for developers are marvelous. If Microsoft has to document everything, we have the distinct possibility of seeing what can and can't be cleaned up in there. Any number of programmers will tell you that they are forced to be de facto reverse engineers for Windows; if Microsoft has to make the code presentable, perhaps it'll be presentable. We shouldn't have to make the company clean their code at the point of a gun, but whatever works. We have nothing to lose but software bloat.
Let Bill Be Bill (whoever he thinks that is). Both Bill and Steve Ballmer said, quite plaintively in fact, that they just didn't realize they'd gotten so durn big and scary. Well, gee whiz, guys. If that's how you feel, let's make you lean and mean again. This is a rare opportunity to reinvent both sides of Microsoft, to let them experience the thrill of competition in a way they haven't really—no, really—since Netscape rolled up. There's plenty of cant from Redmond about the freedom to innovate, but I say nothing breeds innovation like a bit of fire in the belly. Reinventing oneself is an American tradition, Bill and Steve. If you tried it and liked it with the rapid Internet sea change you undertook in the '90s, you're going to love it now. (Yes, Bill, we know you were finally getting a life, but those kids are going to be in school pretty soon; we can't have you just hanging around the house moping while they're out.)
Everything That Diverges Must Rise. Again, there's no denying the pain that the recent drop in Microsoft's stock price has caused many folk in the region; like a Boeing strike, trouble in Redmond can reverberate through the Puget Sound economy. But the long-term prognosis is good. If a breakup was well constructed and matters of stock were handled fairly, employees and shareholders alike can likely look forward to stock in both companies, both destined to rise. Neither the apps company nor the ops company is likely to turn into penny stock. The day-trading crowd won't like that approach to wealth accumulation, but the long-term investors will—and anything that puts a twist in the shorts of the day traders is almost by definition a healthy thing.
Of course, it is the way of the world that one of those stocks will do better than the other. In that case, perhaps Microsoft executives are newly open to a fresh and radical approach. Instead of reconstructing the operating-systems team. . . .
We Can Let Linux Do It. There are those of us in the industry old enough to remember life before Windows ate the world. Whatever you youngsters might have heard, it wasn't pretty. A world where developers had to write for half a dozen different platforms is a world where lots of programmers spend lots of time doing parity upgrades; worse, it's a world where ordinary consumers get flummoxed by too many arcane choices and simply walk out of the store. That sounds hard to the Macintosh crowd and all those old Unix flavors? So be it. The Windows/DOS axis made sense in its time; it convinced the world that there was an Obvious Solution, and they put their money down.
Now that the world is full of cheap computers, though—see, Bill? you didn't have to testify about that after all!--we have the luxury of reevaluating how they operate. The open-source movement has proven that it's real and self-sustainable; the peer review process leads to tight code, and there are plenty of incentives (and people) to keep the ball rolling.
What if Microsoft took the plunge? What if the world didn't have to wait for endlessly postponed operating system upgrades? We have the willing hands and we have the distribution network (the Internet); not only would we get that clean code I was just telling you about, we'd get code that fixes major problems (Outlook, anyone?) in a matter of weeks rather than of months or years. Getting Microsoft out of the OS business would be nothing short of cataclysmic, but so is the breakup ruling. Analysts are already suggesting that the applications company is the horse to back if the split comes to pass. Microsoft as an application company will be forced to stand on its own merits, but considering the size of their installed base that's not the tragedy it might be. Which brings us to my last point. . . .
It Worked For Mickey Mouse (sort of). No, no one's splitting up Disney (nice idea, but you'll have no luck framing it as an antitrust case), but do you remember Fantasia? When Mickey, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, got medieval on the broom that was giving him trouble, he broke it into pieces that turned into an equally powerful, even more unmanageable horde of baby brooms. Attention Judge Jackson: Once again a fictional character in red shorts is breaking nasty stuff up, but this time the result wasn't quite what was expected— or desired. You said in your final memorandum that no one can know how this will all work out, but is this what you had in mind?
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