The past, the future

Sunday night a friend called me screaming. She lives in New York, and at 12:01am EDT (that is, Monday morning) her cable company, Time-Warner, switched off her and every other New Yorker's access to ABC. Since this is Sweeps Month, her soap opera (oh, quit laughing; she's otherwise a very reasonable person) is about to go thermonuclear; being New York, without cable she has no signal. She's screwed—there's no reception without Time-Warner, and no ABC with it.

I tried to explain to her that this is just like what happened when Linux users tried to buy PCs without Windows. This is how a monopoly feels when you're on the receiving end. This is why Microsoft's looking at dismemberment, and this is why I've always (yes, always) said that Time-Warner could wreak a lot more havoc on consumers than could the Redmond Menace.

My friend appreciated the analogy, but she'd like her General Hospital back now.

I spend a lot of time saying that all big companies are pretty much equally evil. In the case of the millions of viewers missing their ABC in the five major TV markets, the bad guy appears to be AOL, Time-Warner's parent company, which waited till the start of sweeps to abruptly cut off negotiations with Disney, ABC's parent company. You will, however, grow old and die before you hear me say a kind word for the copyright-abusing bastards at Disney. This isn't about consumers but about a dick-waving contest between Steve Case and Mickey Mouse. In the words of cable industry expert Jonathan Kramer, "as long as [company CEOs] aren't answering the phones themselves," our outrage means nothing.

So I watch thousands cheer the implosion of Microsoft and think: Do you really believe Larry Ellison and Steve Case and the other boys that made this Microsoft trial so different from the last care about users? The discomfiture of Linux users means as much to those guys as my friend's soap withdrawal means to Mickey. Nada. Bupkes. Squat.

As Kramer puts it, we have now formally been reduced to pawns; we have no ability to declare injury, though injury we feel. Or, more precisely, we'll be told when we feel injury. Few reasonable observers believe that splitting Microsoft will cause the price of operating systems and software and computers to drop. In fact, now that they have both no incentive to keep prices low (they weren't fooling anyone, or at least not Judge Jackson, by not gouging consumers for Windows) and no competitors, they're free to increase prices. And yet the myriad class-action suits around the country claim that consumers were hurt and so does the Department of Justice (unless and until the appeals court says otherwise).

Meanwhile, millions of consumers and advertisers are being affected by AOL's petulance, but AOL's not a trust as our system understands it. Broadcasters have the right to control which cable operators carry them (in other words, if Disney doesn't like the AOL/Time-Warner offer they're free to go elsewhere, wherever that is), while cable regulations don't cover which channels consumers must receive or when. My friend has no recourse. She can pay her cable bill and shut up, or cut off her cable and . . . shut up.

No one can reasonably argue that Microsoft didn't play mean and nasty. Pretending otherwise, Bill-and-Steve, is what made all those states so pissy they're willing to agree to Microsoft's death. But those feeling smug about Microsoft's misfortunes should remember two things:

1. Given the opportunity, any of these other companies would screw you, me, and yo momma just as badly.

2. In the age of the Internet, we have far less to fear from a software company like Microsoft than from an everything company like AOL/Time-Warner.

Whatever happens to Microsoft, they're facing intense monitoring in the operating system and software fields. Meanwhile, AOL/Time-Warner is facing some scrutiny over their proposed merger, and a few smallish content/Net companies are mewling about monopoly, but in Kramer's eyes AOL's greater concern at the moment is getting thousands of transfer applications done in thousands of local markets.

Once those applications are completed, local governments have just four months to explain why AOL shouldn't be allowed to eat Time-Warner's cable outlets, and they have to show cause. If consumer advocates were putting in one-tenth as much work explaining to officials why an everything-from-bandwidth-to-content company is far more dangerous to the public good than a bunch of software guys, no matter how powerful the software guys are in their own limited sphere—well, let's just say that the legal system would be in grave danger of actually averting a problem, rather than throwing roadblocks at a problem that has in fact played itself out. Microsoft's monopoly is the past. AOL's is the future. And you're not nearly as scared by that as you should be.

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