Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Re-visit the Desktop Anti-Trust Remedy

Microsoft, I thought you were learning to play nice with the competition. I guess I was wrong. Maybe it's just ineptitude, maybe it's simply too many years taking shortcuts to squash competition. Whatever it is, this thing with Google, it's bad.

Microsoft has been caught using Google's search engine results to better their own. They (apparently) used their installation of a toolbar to siphon results for searches so that their search results (at least the top one) would be relevant (like Googles').

In case you think this is some kind of anomaly, here's some history. When it came to MS DOS 6, Microsoft wanted to add disk compression (there was a time when disk drive space was tight -- and on-the-fly compression, at the OS level, was the order of the day). They wanted Stac Electronics "Stacker", specifically. They went to Stac, asked to include the product -- virtually at no revenue benefit to them (Stac). Stac said no. Microsoft really wanted it bad, so they basically stole the driver code, and included the key piece of it in their product.

And they got caught.

There were two things going on here -- 1) theft of the driver and 2) an attempt to catch up to a competitor (Digital Research, who was offering a competing DOS that had the compression). You can read a pretty good breakdown of the behavior of this incident here.

Is this related to what's going on with Google? I'd argue that it's very similar behavior -- and it's bad for business. We live in an ecosphere of business operation where important innovation needs to be rewarded. Businesses need to reward innovation and shun activity like the above. Rewarding Microsoft for theft (hardly anyone understood what was happening -- the courts did, for what its worth) amounts to a blank check for further theft. Doing something about this kind of behavior -- say, not buying the products offered by such a company -- would help put some kind of a check in place to at least inhibit this kind of activity.

Now, you could argue that Microsoft got their due in the above. Disk compression got a bad name (Microsoft's implementation more or less sucked in my humble opinion) and Digital research went out of business. There were factors besides the above that hastened their demise -- per processor licensing, the fiddling with Windows so that DR DOS wouldn't work and some other dirty tricks -- all of these actions greeted in the industry by mild journalistic outrage -- but most of the people on the business side, when they heard of these tactics greeted them with a sense of I would call admiration. Like, "Wow, those guys really know how to sideline the competition." They were indifferent. They continued to purchase the Microsoft products, in other words, and didn't seem to care about the moral implications. The legal ramifications were bad, but it's not like they mattered.

Fast forward to today. Desktop competition is more or less non-existent. As stated elsewhere, there's an irrelevance to this fact -- Tablet and Mobile computing are finally blunting Microsoft's monopoly -- but that's despite what's happened in the past. The sad thing is that Microsoft still doesn't seem to think that the rules apply. They seem to think that stuff like this stealing of Google's search algorithm results using software they load on the desktop side of the equation is still par for the course.

But it's not OK -- Microsoft, in this case, would be nothing without Google's hard work. Rather than make a better, more innovative search algorithm, instead they're doing the usual sneak about, the usual corner-cutting and I'm seeing the same old yawn from business folks. It's like "So what."

The department of justice should step in here. I think it's time they re-visit the remedy for Microsoft's desktop monopoly. I think it's time that they break the company into several business units. This is why anti-trust legislation exists.

Microsoft needs to be a pure desktop company. The Office monopoly needs to exist in another company. The search engine folks, Xbox and so on -- all of them need to be broken up into separate companies with no visible connection. I say all of these things because clearly they think it's OK to use one monopoly to create another (In my humble opinion, that's how they've survived this long with the Office/OS product lines -- it certainly wasn't due to making a superior product). And I wouldn't be saying this if stuff like this behavior wasn't obviously recurring.

In this case, you can see them using their desktop monopoly to attempt to create a real presence for Bing -- and as we can see, Bing wouldn't be usable (or arguably, it would be much worse in terms of product) if it were not for Google's search engine.

Is Google doing similar things? It will be perceived that way -- you go to Google's mail and there's the search engine link above and so on -- but Google has established its dominance without these kinds of dirty tricks. They don't have a web monopoly, after all. They're simply the best (again, my humble opinion) and have been for years.

There's no law against what Microsoft has done here (except for the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which is hard for people to understand in the context of technology -- more on that later) -- I will argue that there is an obvious moral break from expected and acceptable business practice.

Let's start with business -- do you like having innovative things like Google? Haven't they helped save you some hard cash recently? Want that to stay the same? Call your local Microsoft representative and tell them how you feel about them doing what they're doing with your desktop software to help seed their (obviously flawed) search engine technology. Threaten to ditch your desktops for Google android tablets or Apple iPad devices. You will save money and potentially make the computing ecosystem more diverse. Do your part and blunt the desktop monopoly and save cash at the same time.

I'm also appealing to the Department of Justice -- the anti-trust laws of this country are supposed to help create real competition in the marketplace. When a dominant player uses their position to attempt to take over another market (in this case, the search engine market), it's time to do your job and begin litigating a remedy.

There are plenty of dead company bodies lying around as examples -- let's do it before Google is one of them.

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