THE ANTI-MICROSOFT forces are already circling for their next attack on Redmond. The U.S. Court of Appeals may have declined to break up the company, but its judges nonetheless affirmed that Microsoft is indeed a monopolist. And they left open the possibility that Microsoft could be punished for its practice of "tying" applications (such as the Internet Explorer Web browser) into its Windows operating system monopoly.
The ruling has competitors and state attorneys general sharpening their legal knives. They are especially alarmed about Windows XP, the new version of Microsoft's operating system due out this October, which continues the "tying" strategy quite unabashedly. XP will include a built-in instant messaging service (taking aim at one of AOL's most popular apps) and a built-in "media player" for playing audio and video files (which could theoretically render Seattle-based RealNetworks irrelevant).
But how scary is this really? I can understand that the guys at Netscape feel put out, but why should I care? I'm just not sure. So far, at least, I haven't been railroaded into any Microsoft sites. I don't find myself being force-fed Underwire or Slate (one of which I believe is now out of business). Microsoft's giant online guide to cities, Sidewalk, was an abject failure, despite the company's control of people's Internet browsing software. I feel way more hijacked by those wretched companies selling peeping tom cameras and other crap forever opening up new browser windows as I surf the Web.
Internet Explorer, as near as I can tell, is just a pass-through. I never notice it, and I never paid for it. I have no problem using my RealPlayer, or Shockwave, or numerous other non-Microsoft applications with IE. And I'm not aware of anyone claiming that IE is somehow suppressing Web development—at least not since Real CEO Rob Glaser made his accusation (later discredited) at a congressional hearing several years ago that Windows was "disabling" his media player. I feel far more abused by one of Glaser's products, the RealJukebox, which, contrary to my clear instruction in the "Preferences" menu, continues to commandeer my computer's CD drive, self-launching every time I load up a disc.
Redmond competitors, attorneys general, and the press are certainly fanning the fears of a Microsoft-dominated future. Last week, for example, New York Times tech writer John Markoff darkly warned: "It now appears that Microsoft's Windows Media Player, while conveniently integrated into Windows XP, will play music and video recorded in the company's proprietary formats but not in those of its competitors [such as Real]."
But so what? As Real executives will tell you, over 100 million computer users have downloaded one of the company's Real players since the product was first launched six years ago. And downloading the software is only going to get easier, not harder, in the future, as more people get faster connections. So if millions of computer users have been willing to seek out the free player to get music and video in the Real format, why shouldn't they continue to do so in the future? The only possible reason is if the Windows player is superior, in which case Redmond should put Real out of business.
What's more, Microsoft, for the most part, does not control the content. Companies like sometime rival AOL Time Warner are the ones that will make the choices of media formats and delivery systems. And these firms can no longer harbor any doubts about Microsoft's business practices and the need to stay out from under Redmond's thumb. It is widely believed that one of the reasons for Real's success is that the content companies want to keep a Microsoft alternative alive.
In the end, Microsoft's monopoly power may not be all it's cracked up to be. If, in the years to come, computer users are comfortable handing over their personal information to a central depository in Redmond and having Microsoft provide an online wallet and Web-surfing ID card— as the Passport and Hailstorm initiatives propose—then Microsoft will certainly succeed in becoming a critical middleman to global Internet commerce. But that's only if people actually trust the service and find it useful. The monopoly makes it possible, but the ultimate outcome is out of Microsoft's hands.