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OPINION AUGUST 27, 2001
Talkin' Smack: At It Again

Microsoft takes a subtle but decisive step toward Web domination

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

In some ways, it's reassuring to know that some things don't change. Even if it's a lame thing. Take Microsoft, for example.

Long-time Mac users should remember what it was like when Microsoft began its descent to domination of the OS market. The rallying cry was, "The Macintosh is incompatible." Remember that? Remember how your Mac, which was still to dominate the market for years to come, both in terms of software and hardware, suddenly became "incompatible?" There were more Macs on the market than anything else. There was more software for the Mac—including games—than for any other platform. The Mac had speed and sophistication. It could talk to you. It could play music. It could display actual graphics. It could network. All without any additional hardware. And all the peecee could do was sit there and make beeping sounds as users stared at a blue screen with white text.

And we were the ones who were incompatible.

Millions of dollars worth of bribes later (what the industry calls "seed money"), developers abandoned the Mac in favor of the Microsoft-led peecee parade. Now, when I say developers "abandoned" the Mac, I'm really referring to the kinds of developers who made products for the office, accounting banking, as well as games. Most everybody else, especially makers of professional creative software, actually did stick with the Mac. And, in most cases, the Mac versions of their software was better (as it still is today) than the peecee versions.

Nevertheless, the word had gone out: There's no software for the Mac.

By this time, I.S. people who had been trained in Microsoft-tainted adult education schools were by far the dominant decision makers in corporations where computer purchases were concerned. And so began the great toppling of the traditional Mac base.

Funny story: In my last publishing company, our peecee-supporting I.S. guys waned to convert all of us art and editorial people over to Windows. One factor prevented this. I and a few other Mac guys insisted that if we were going to switch to Windows, it should be Windows NT. And so it happened. But we were a publishing company on a QuarkXPress system, so, of course, it was a miserable failure. Quark didn't work right with NT, and ATM—which was fundamental to our publishing process—didn't work at all. And so, after the initial test period, we all kept our Macs. Our vindictive I.S. department found many ways to screw me once they figured out what had happened, but, in the end, my mission was fulfilled.

So why do I bring all of this up now? This is all ancient history, right?

Wrong.

Because Microsoft still exists and because there are still competitors standing in the way of Microsoft's total domination of all things relating to computers. In this case, I'm talking about recent developments on the Web.

The end at the beginning
Remember the early, beautiful days of the Internet? Nobody cared about stock prices, e-this or -that or synergistic strategies for shifting to proactive paradigms. It was just an excellent way to get information out and to exchange ideas with people. It was also an excuse to play around with your Mac a little more than usual. Plus it was just a really nice place to be, seeing as Microsoft wasn't involved at all.

But then came Internet Explorer. Of course, it was crap, but what does that matter? You don't have to be the best to win, right? Especially if you have a seed fund and a practical monopoly that you can parley in any way you see fit. Any Mac user worthy of his or her IIci knew what was coming next.

Strangely enough, it didn't happen as quickly or decisively as we all thought it would. First off, Netscape maintained its browser's domination for considerably longer than any of us could have guessed. Second, Microsoft lost big time in its battle with AOL to become the dominant proprietary online service. Whatever you think of AOL, you have to give them that they're better than anything else that was out there. And not only did they topple the peecee-oriented Compuserve and Prodigy powerhouses, but they also gave Bill Gates the involuntary colonoscopy he deserved for his quest to ruin yet another area of computing.

At least temporarily.

In the meantime, Internet Explorer was slowly taking over market share—not only on the peecee, but on the Mac as well, after Microsoft "seeded" Apple in the latter's moment of need. (Yep, Gates sure does know how to spread his seed all over everybody.) Strangely enough, on the Mac platform, it was not only taking over, but it was also getting better. Say what you like about Microsoft, but their Mac development team is actually quite talented (not counting the Word 6 fiasco).

I myself made the switch to Explorer at version 5.5. Netscape Communicator had simply gotten too slow, clumsy and crashy to tolerate anymore.

Now, of course, Internet Explorer does dominate the browser market. Up until last week, this hadn't seemed like such a bad thing. It had seemed, after all, that Microsoft had mellowed in its competition-crushing tactics in favor of a more "we're all on the same team" approach to world domination. It was a lull, albeit a short one, in Microsoft's schemes.

It wasn't really a lull, of course. It was time well spent in reformulating a new strategy in light of the government's case against Microsoft. The secret of competition now is slow, steady progress toward the end of everything as we know it. (Kind of like the government itself. Touché.) The first phase is the end of Netscape. The second phase is the elimination of any conceivable competition. The third phase is ownership of the market. The last phase is realizing profit from all the expense that went into making Internet Explorer the dominant browser. In other words, the free ride isn't going to last much longer.

Netscape has already all but conceded to Microsoft. They haven't lost yet, but they can see what we all saw forming some six years ago—the end.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has already started consolidating its position in the market.

A step in the wrong direction
Last week we learned that the latest versions of Internet Explorer for Windows no longer support Netscape plugins, including QuickTime. (Apple, however, instantly developed an Active-X control to make QuickTime work with the new Explorers.) Your initial reaction would be, "Why is Microsoft making itself incompatible with virtually every browser plugin on the market?" They're not making themselves incompatible. They're making Netscape and everybody else incompatible. Just as they did with the Macintosh and SGI and every platform that has come and gone, from Amiga to OS/2 to even Microsoft's own non-Intel-based systems.

So now you say, hey, what does it matter? People can keep using Netscape with all the plugins that are already on the market, right? Yes, for a while. But let's not forget Microsoft's seed fund. And let's not forget the resources that go into developing plugins not only for multiple computer platforms, but multiple browser platforms as well. Microsoft is dominant, so why develop for Netscape, which is a dwindling entity? Sound familiar?

Very soon the same thing will happen on the Mac platform, and the repercussions will be severe. Already Internet Explorer for Windows ships without the Flash plugin. What's going to happen when it ships with no plugins at all? Nobody will be able to view anything without manually downloading software components, and we all know what that means. It means that within five to seven years all multimedia on the Web that uses non-Microsoft technologies will be unreadable.

But don't worry. I'm sure Microsoft will come up with a fix for this. Say, how about its own, crappy version of Flash? And who needs QuickTime when you have Windows Media? And who needs fonts when you have that crappy thing that Microsoft invented to replace them—OpenType, I believe.

Yes, Microsoft will indeed be here to bail us out when everyone else's technologies go away. For a fee, of course.

We've seen monopolies and oligopolies come and go. They've all had lasting, devastating impacts on civilization, from environmental damage to physical and economic danger to consumers to the strangulation of technological initiatives that could otherwise have enriched the lives of all of us. Microsoft is just another in a line of companies that have realized the dream of total domination at the expense of everything. Their practices are damaging to everyone and will undoubtedly lead, in part, to the end of technological innovation in this country.

In short, Microsoft is incompatible with our civilization. Or is it the other way around?

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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