Sometimes Too Much Choice is Bad

OK, Bill, the "findings of fact" went against you in a big way. The tech-pundits and expert legal advisors are all waxing poetic about what the breakup of Microsoft will look like and what it will mean to the market. Don't despair, though, I have some surefire ways you can dodge the DOJ and avoid any judgment against you.

1) Change the name of Windows 95/98. Any judgment against Microsoft will likely mention Windows 95/98 specifically and if you change the name of the OS, you're off the hook! Might I suggest Billux 1.0? It's got to bug you that you're worth $100 billion, but Linus Torvalds is the one who has an OS named after him. So why not avoid the DOJ and erect an OS monument to yourself at the same time?

2) Publicly release the source code to Windows (I mean, Billux) and declare it an open source OS. You can then let the former Windows development team go, and because they enjoy working on operating systems so much, they'll develop Billux on their own time for free. How will you control the direction of Billux if it's open source? I wouldn't worry about that since no one but the original Windows developers will be able to understand the source code!

3) Make it look like you actually want the direction of Billux to be governed by an industry standard group. This has worked well for Sun (re Java), and will definitely throw the DOJ bloodhounds off your track. Besides, industry standard groups are notorious for taking a long time to accomplish nothing, at which point you can ride in on your white horse and rescue the endeavor, and look like a swell guy who just wants to get things done quickly for the good of the Billux community.

4) Promote an unofficial Billux mascot, perhaps a Kiwi bird. Everybody loves an endearing mascot and if you are seen wearing a t-shirt with the playful Billux Kiwi on it, no one will dare suspect you of being a cruel, evil, manipulating monopolist bent on world domination through OS sales.

5) Move the headquarters of Microsoft every six months and leave no forwarding address. This is my favorite, as it's been a very effective tactic for avoiding creditors, or at least that's what I hear. It also works great if you're trying to avoid the periodic medical exam the Naval Reserve has been bugging you about for the last three years. Remember: if the DOJ can't find you, they can't break up your company.

6) Ignore the previous five suggestions and fight the DOJ tooth and nail. I hope you win because a breakup of the alleged Microsoft monopoly of desktop operating systems would do irreparable harm to the industry and in the end, to consumers as well.

Wait just a minute you say, number six isn't funny. Well, you're right, number six isn't funny and neither is the potential damage a Microsoft breakup would do to ISVs.

You see, I believe that although the alleged Microsoft monopoly of desktop operating systems might stifle innovation in the desktop operating system market, it actually has the opposite effect on the application software market.

The "findings of fact" made reference to the "application barrier to entry," i.e. the idea that once an OS is well established, it's the sheer number of applications available for that OS that prevents other OS platforms from entering the market. It's a chicken and egg sort of thing. An OS can't be successful without a lot of applications and no one wants to write applications unless an OS is successful. For the sake of argument let's assume this barrier exists. Let's also assume that Microsoft is a monopoly.

That said I can only add, "So what?" At the same time the "application barrier to entry" stifles OS innovation, it actually promotes application software innovation. How can this be, you might ask? Well, it's actually very simple.

Carefully examine the application software market for midrange computers and you'll see what a fractured OS market can do to application software innovation. There's a multitude of midrange computing platforms each with their own proprietary operating system. When an ISV decides to enter that market they're confronted with too much choice. How do they decide which platform to program for? Is this decision based on a platform's installed base? Growth rate? Partner support? In reality the decision is based on all of the above.

Once a platform decision is made, what other effects does a fractured OS market have on ISVs? First and foremost it forces the average price for application software to be higher than the equivalent software package would be in a one OS market.

In the Windows market, the installed base of Windows-based PCs (somewhere approaching 200 million worldwide) is so large that even at $99 a pop, an ISV can make money on sheer volume. There's more than enough market there for everyone.

Quite the contrary is true in the midrange computing software market where the installed base for any one platform is measured in hundreds of thousands, not hundreds of millions. With an installed base this low, application software packages are usually priced many times higher than equivalent software for Windows-based PCs.

The software in the midrange market is priced higher for two reasons. First, the lower installed base means that, to survive, a company must charge more per unit for their software. Second, supporting the multiple platforms that would allow them to reach a larger installed base--and thus lower prices--is more expensive due to the lack of economies of scale and the duplication of effort.

In light of this it's not difficult to understand why many of the traditional AS/400-only ISVs are trampling each other on the path to releasing their products on Windows NT. Don't you wish the AS/400 held a monopoly position in the server platform market? Then maybe we'd have greater software choice and lower prices for the platform we know and love. Then again, would we want IBM to go through another antitrust lawsuit?