In one respect, it no longer matters how the legal tug-of-war between Microsoft and the US Department of Justice turns out. Because when you peer past the lawyers in full body armor, you'll see them standing on a battlefield scarred by a wide, and perhaps irreparable, fracture—right across what had been, on the surface, a unified computer industry. The MS/DOJ conflict has finally led to a long-threatened open civil war among software companies.
That's not to say that until now the computer industry was one Barnified big happy famileeee. Many firms have long had a love/hate relationship with Microsoft—loving the company for standardizing the PC market on Windows so they can build on the platform, while hating it for moving to dominate increasingly more market segments.
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But anti-Microsoft sniping used to be limited to competitive skirmishes or isolated sour-grape whines. These were reflected by anonymous Internet-propelled jokes about Bill Gates buying a) the Roman Catholic Church, b) the Department of Justice, or c) the name "Bob." Other signs were Microsoft's failure to win more than one award from its peers at the Software Publishers Association Codies in 1996 and 1997 (despite numerous nominations), and speakers at trade shows pointedly asking, "Is anyone from Microsoft in the audience?" before telling their Microsoft Story.
Now any subtlety has been replaced by a very public taking of sides. Last month, even the 1,200-member Software Publishers Association came out in support of the anti-Microsoft "Project to Promote Competition and Innovation in the Digital Age," or ProComp. That project in turn endorsed the SPA's January principles for competition in the software industry, themselves a thinly veiled slap at Microsoft. Lining up with the SPA were a diverse group including Netscape, Corel, the Sabre airline reservation system, and newspaper giant Knight Ridder. The Washington Software Alliance, on Microsoft's home turf, has steadfastly remained neutral.
There is precedent for a trade association to pick favorites in a squabble among members. In 1994, the American Booksellers Association sued large book publishers who allegedly were favoring major chains at the expense of the ABA's independent booksellers. While the suit was successful (and followed last month by a lawsuit aimed directly at the chains), the ABA is no longer the undisputed single voice of the bookselling industry. Indeed, the one-time must-attend ABA trade show is a pathetic shadow of its former self, as large publishers have pulled out.
Collateral damage from the MS/DOJ battle may be similar. At the SPA's must-attend spring conference, Microsoft staffers were scarce, and a Microsoft exec elected to the SPA Consumer Board (on which I also sit) declined to serve after the competition guidelines were released. SPA president Ken Wasch, while emphasizing that Microsoft is still active in the SPA and continues as a dues-paying member, admits to being "very concerned" about the potential impact, but philosophically notes, "If you dodge the hard issues, what good are you?"
Whether or not Microsoft's opponents are involved in a just cause, I'm already nostalgic for a simpler time when software companies were publicly united, speaking with a single voice for the common digital good—no matter how much of that unity was a very pretty, idealistic, and ultimately unrealistic illusion.
Count on it
Sick of the hysteria surrounding Y2K, the Year 2000 four-digit date problem? Get ready for its younger sibling: DJ10K. Conversion software company ADPAC Corp. is sounding the alarm about the inability of many automated trading operations to handle a fifth digit should the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 10,000, potentially crashing systems. At least there's some hope that DJ10K can be more easily resolved than Y2K—stock prices, after all, can get smaller.
Two publications that made a big deal about their transition to and from the Web (Byte Me, 10/22/97 ) have bounced into the bit bucket. Omni Online reportedly shut down March 31, following its print version three years earlier. Meanwhile, Web site Online Gaming Review (www.ogr.com) ceased publishing its print OGR Magazine with the February/March issue—a scant two months after starting it.
You said it
"It never stops, does it?—the flood of information that makes it nearly impossible to tell the difference between what you need to know and what they want to tell you." So began an unsolicited commercial e-mail message that recently arrived, pushing subscriptions to industry trade publication Information Week—to which I already subscribe. Spam rarely undermines itself so succinctly.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Software Publishers Association—views on DOJ/ Microsoft
Washington Software Alliance
Pro-Mac site—share your hatred of Windows
Funny subliminal messages in Windows 95
Voice your opinion on the DJ10K problem