When the Judge in the Microsoft anti-trust trial compared the company to JD Rockefeller's oil monopoly Standard Oil, which was forced to split into separate companies in one of the biggest court cases of the 20th century, Bill Gates ought to have known the game was up.
It's ironic that the talk of a Microsoft break-up should bring up the subject of Standard Oil, because the name is a reminder of what this case is all about: standards.
There is no doubt that Microsoft helped to bring PCs out of the lab and back office and into people's homes, pockets, and even cars. The 'standards' that Gates built his empire on - cheap Intel PCs, Windows NT and Office - made it easier for people to buy and use computers, undoubtedly.
However, they haven't helped to make people understand the technology; they were designed to lock people in rather than give them a choice. Windows' ease of use hides a complexity that people are encouraged to ignore. Windows' error messages seem to say: 'Don't you worry your little head about all this complicated IT stuff; just reboot and wait, like everyone else.'
A word in your ear
Windows is designed to remove you from technology, to keep it under wraps so you can carry on ignoring the fact that you are becoming entirely dependent on it. Next time you do something as simple as launching Word, ask yourself: do I really know what's going on here?
Open source is another matter. The standards it is based on are not only accessible to everyone, they encourage involvement. The internet is probably the finest example of the fruit of open source ideals, encouraging collaboration, discussion and choice.
The thriving competition between various open source operating systems and software packages is due to the huge toolset that open standards offer developers. Not only do developers share code, they co-operate in defining new standards.
This is why Microsoft's whining about the right to innovate is so absurd. The internet has shown more innovation in five years than Microsoft has in 25.
Of course, no-one wants to have to write up their latest report from a command prompt. But was Microsoft really innovating when it gave us Word? Sure, you can do a fancy layout, auto-calculate all your figures, and do an automatic mail merge to all your colleagues. But, and this is a big but, only if they all have Word, and the latest version at that.
Open and shut case
Open source advocates would argue that the only way to guarantee freedom from this sort of technological tyranny is to get your hands dirty, and get under the bonnet. If your car doesn't start, you could go to a garage and have it fixed by a trained mechanic. But if you know your way under the bonnet, you can fix it yourself.
Driving a Microsoft car means you would have to go to a Microsoft-certified garage, where they would advise you to replace the engine and wiring, which can only be found at a separate Microsoft shop. Driving an open source car, however, you could borrow spare parts from passing motorists; and an open source garage would probably give you free parts provided you paid for the repairs!
So whether Microsoft is split up or not makes very little difference. It is the 'standards' that it espouses that should be undermined and overturned.
Standards are not meant to lock you in, but to set you free.
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