Sunday, April 9, 2000
Page: D07


By James J. O'Donnell

Everybody's had the experience of struggling with a computer problem made more difficult because not all computers and not all computer programs are alike. "Incompatible file format"; "You need to upgrade your browser"; "I cannot read the format of this disk"; "Exit all programs and restart your machine."

But things are better than they used to be. Fifteen years ago, I had a program on my PC that converted a dozen different diskette formats so I could read them. Now we're down to two, and Macintosh machines can read Windows formats easily.

Is this the great gift of Microsoft? Should we be grateful to Bill Gates? It's an open question.

If you look at the history of the personal computer, Gates has a good case. The rise to dominance of his operating system and his company has been accompanied by a great homogenization and standardization that benefits us all. In some way, it really is just easier that most of us all get our operating systems from one place. Maybe we needed Microsoft.

But if you talk to serious technologists, you don't find much sympathy for that view. "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc!" a few of them (who remember their Latin or their logic) will exclaim: Just because the two events go together doesn't mean one caused the other.

For it is broadly obvious that standardization of hardware and software doesn't require single-source monopoly. Virtually every other industry that depends on standards for interoperation of complicated equipment (think of cellular phones or fax machines or VCRs) manages to create a community of standards that draws on the innovation and creativity of a broadly competitive community.

So should we root for the Justice Department against Microsoft? No reason to do that. I think instead we can take a long view.

The last 10 years have seen our computers begin to talk to one another. It's not surprising that one powerful force would emerge in the industry to lead the way and end by dominating the market. Great moments in industrialization have always worked this way.

At the same time, it's not at all surprising - I would think it's inevitable - that such monopoly dominion would begin to sway, totter and fall. The active intervention of the Justice Department is only a symptom of a broader social movement. We now recognize that we need to live in a connected, communicating world. We as a society are ready to give up dependence on a single monolithic authority system.

Right now, Bill Gates is irrelevant. He's performed a huge service to society and taken a huge reward for it. On one hand, a harsh antitrust judgment is probably just as likely to spur him to continue to contribute greatly as anything else might. He might, on the other hand, simply fade from the scene as other innovators outpace him. We don't need him, and we needn't fear him.
Nobody can predict at this point whether the intervention of the Department of Justice will make things better or worse in the short run. But the role of Microsoft in the long run will fade, and we will come to live in a world in which the brand name on our hardware or software will cease to mean much of anything. The 21st century will be the age of information, not machines. The next great antitrust lawsuit will be about monopoly control of information, not of the boxes or the programs that manipulate it.

James J. O'Donnell is professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania. His Web site is