Upfront - Microsoft's Free Ride

Whenever I tell someone that I write about computers for a living, they invariably ask me what I think about "this whole Microsoft thing."

I don't cover Microsoft that closely, nor am I an expert in antitrust law or PC operating systems, so perhaps my opinion of its ongoing battle with the Justice Department and state attorneys general over how it does business is not the most valued one.

However, some recent news is very telling. Microsoft acquires Hotmail but must continue to run the free Web e-mail service on Sun Solaris, because its own Windows NT isn't scaleable enough to handle it. Microsoft brags that its Terra Server is the world's largest Web database, then watches it become overwhelmed by traffic and inaccessible in its first few days online. Windows 98 is released but requires new BIOS software and device drivers that haven't been released yet, in order to run properly. It also has a bug that prevents some Canadian users from connecting to their ISPs.

Granted, a company of Microsoft's stature will always have every little stumble magnified in the media, perhaps unfairly. But I'm starting to see a portrait of a company that doesn't really have its act together and whose latest technology "innovations" seem to be of dubious merit. In today's supposedly highly competitive market, such a company should be in deep trouble.

But not Microsoft. Its dominance of the desktop remains unchallenged. Its applications take over nearly every marketplace they enter, its Windows NT, though much-maligned for its performance and scalability, is poised to become the enterprise system of the future and is where nearly every software vendor feels they have to be in order to compete. Could such a company thrive like this if the playing field really was level?

I'm not sure, but I hope the prosecutors and judges dealing with the antitrust case against Microsoft find out.