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Whither Microsoft?

Get on with the break-up already!

I have beaten my dead horse re: Microsoft antitrust issues into the ground–I believe Judge Jackson’s breakup ruling should be upheld. But my opinion doesn’t count for much in court. The operative question is, “Will the appeals court uphold the ruling?” Based on what the experts say in a news item on our site today, it’s anyone’s guess.

Some of the best legal minds say the appeals court will overturn the ruling. Others say it will be upheld. Still others say it is folly to predict. So why bother? Because we all want to know. We are all searching for a sign to shine through the pall cast by one dreary economic report after another from the tech sector. We all hope that somehow a definitive ruling in this case might magically return us to the prosperous times before the Justice Department brought the case against Microsoft.

The question is, which ruling is better for our economic futures? Here it gets way too complicated for the short space of this column. But I’m going to sketch an argument now that will appear in its full form in my Insights column in April. (Sorry, you’ll just have to wait for the full version, print schedules being what they are.) My view is that the best thing for this economy is to get on with the break-up.

My reasoning goes something like this: lots of people I know have great ideas about really useful software, but the barriers to entry are just too great to quit their day jobs, especially with start-up cash dwindling. Many of them have commented to me that they abandoned their dreams of launching a new software company after learning what a bunch of sharks inhabit the market, especially with Microsoft’s great white hulk looming just off-shore. All the stories that came up in the trial just reinforced their opinions. And what’s true for starry-eyed geeks is true for serious software executives. If your idea is worth something, you either have to partner with Microsoft or allow yourself to be eaten by it.

To be sure, this attitude is a little paranoid. But it’s real. I know it’s crossed my mind with my killer search engine idea. There’s a lot of cool new open-source stuff, but software needs some commercial appeal to sustain itself in the mass market. What we need is to get back to the days when new software releases appeared daily and the press was full of a variety of reviews. The reality is, there just aren’t a lot of new products these days. Most of the stuff we review is software that’s been around for a decade and is now on version 10. With each new version, sales take a little hit. Eventually, it won’t be viable to even release a new version.

Yet there’s tons of stuff computers could do that they don’t currently do. Perhaps it’s a little over optimistic, but if the market is restored to the way it was before Microsoft could dictate the terms of any deal, it could jump-start innovation. Innovation fuels productivity, and productivity fuels the economy. That’s the view, in sketch form. I’ll revisit it at home tonight and crank out the full version to meet our March 1 press date.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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