The U.S. Government's assertion that Microsoft has a monopoly in the OS market might be the most patently absurd claim ever advanced by the legal mind. Linux, a technically superior operating system, is being given away for free, and BeOS is available at a nominal price. This is simply a fact, which has to be accepted whether or not you like Microsoft.

Microsoft is really big and rich, and if some of the government's witnesses are to be believed, they are not nice guys. But the accusation of a monopoly simply does not make any sense.

What is really going on is that Microsoft has seized, for the time being, a certain type of high ground: they dominate in the competition for mindshare, and so any hardware or software maker who wants to be taken seriously feels compelled to make a product that is compatible with their operating systems. Since Windows-compatible drivers get written by the hardware makers, Microsoft doesn't have to write them; in effect, the hardware makers are adding new components to Windows, making it a more capable OS, without charging Microsoft for the service. It is a very good position to be in. The only way to fight such an opponent is to have an army of highly competetent coders who write equivalent drivers for free, which Linux does.

But possession of this psychological high ground is different from a monopoly in any normal sense of that word, because here the dominance has nothing to do with technical performance or price. The old robber-baron monopolies were monopolies because they physically controlled means of production and/or distribution. But in the software business, the means of production is hackers typing code, and the means of distribution is the Internet, and no one is claiming that Microsoft controls those.

Here, instead, the dominance is inside the minds of people who buy software. Microsoft has power because people believe it does. This power is very real. It makes lots of money. Judging from recent legal proceedings in both Washingtons, it would appear that this power and this money have inspired some very peculiar executives to come out and work for Microsoft, and that Bill Gates should have administered saliva tests to some of them before issuing them Microsoft ID cards.

But this is not the sort of power that fits any normal definition of the word "monopoly," and it's not amenable to a legal fix. The courts may order Microsoft to do things differently. They might even split the company up. But they can't really do anything about a mindshare monopoly, short of taking every man, woman, and child in the developed world and subjecting them to a lengthy brainwashing procedure.

Mindshare dominance is, in other words, a really odd sort of beast, something that the framers of our antitrust laws couldn't possibly have imagined. It looks like one of these modern, wacky chaos-theory phenomena, a complexity thing, in which a whole lot of independent but connected entities (the world's computer users), making decisions on their own, according to a few simple rules of thumb, generate a large phenomenon (total domination of the market by one company) that cannot be made sense of through any kind of rational analysis. Such phenomena are fraught with concealed tipping-points and all a-tangle with bizarre feedback loops, and cannot be understood; people who try, end up (a) going crazy, (b) giving up, (c) forming crackpot theories, or (d) becoming high-paid chaos theory consultants.

Now, there might be one or two people at Microsoft who are dense enough to believe that mindshare dominance is some kind of stable and enduring position. Maybe that even accounts for some of the weirdos they've hired in the pure-business end of the operation, the zealots who keep getting hauled into court by enraged judges. But most of them must have the wit to understand that phenomena like these are maddeningly unstable, and that there's no telling what weird, seemingly inconsequential event might cause the system to shift into a radically different configuration.

To put it another way, Microsoft can be confident that Thomas Penfield Jackson will not hand down an order that the brains of everyone in the developed world are to be summarily re-programmed. But there's no way to predict when people will decide, en masse, to re-program their own brains. This might explain some of Microsoft's behavior, such as their policy of keeping eerily large reserves of cash sitting around, and the extreme anxiety that they display whenever something like Java comes along.

I have never seen the inside of the building at Microsoft where the top executives hang out, but I have this fantasy that in the hallways, at regular intervals, big red alarm boxes are bolted to the wall. Each contains a large red button protected by a windowpane. A metal hammer dangles on a chain next to it. Above is a big sign reading: IN THE EVENT OF A CRASH IN MARKET SHARE, BREAK GLASS.

What happens when someone shatters the glass and hits the button, I don't know, but it sure would be interesting to find out. One imagines banks collapsing all over the world as Microsoft withdraws its cash reserves, and shrink-wrapped pallet-loads of hundred-dollar bills dropping from the skies. No doubt, Microsoft has a plan. But what I would really like to know is whether, at some level, their programmers might heave a big sigh of relief if the burden of writing the One Universal Interface to Everything were suddenly lifted from their shoulders.

In The Beginning Was The Command Line
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