TRON Project Leader's Opinion

Ken Sakamura

The University Museum, The University of Tokyo

On June 7 U.S. time, in the antitrust trial being argued between the U.S. Department of Justice and Microsoft Corporation, the Washington Federal District Court ordered the breakup of Microsoft Corporation. If we consider this in straightforward terms, we would probably arrive at the conclusion that "other operating systems also will spread as a result of this." However, in the case of software, as differs with other industries, the story isn't that simple.

When we scrutinize the history of Microsoft, the 1970s was the age of the BASIC language, the 1980s the age of MS-DOS, and the 1990s the age of Windows. Although Microsoft has also had application software from the 1970s, in the latter half of the 1980s the tendency to attach importance not just to the operating system but also to application software became strong, and discord with other software makers went on increasing.

Sales combining application software and the operating system were carried out, and every time frequently used software such as Microsoft Word was upgraded, the document format was modified. On top of that, it wasn't made public to outsiders. When the people around you upgrade without you being to read documents created with the new software using the old software, you as the user end up compulsorily upgrading your software.

(In American newspapers, they use the expression upgrade treadmill. A treadmill is what we call a "room runner" in Japanese. It nicely expresses the fact that you end up getting cast aside when you don't continue to upgrade.)

And then, when Windows took off as a business, Microsoft made the most frequently used business software, the word processor and the spreadsheet, into a set and began marketing them at a competitive price. If this set is sold at a price that is cheaper than buying two separate pieces of software, people end up buying the set software. On top of that, because there are application program interfaces (APIs) in Windows that are released only inside Microsoft, rival companies are at a disadvantage.

If you are an enterprise that does basic software as a business, you should draw a line from the beginning so that you do not obstruct the business of customers who develop software on top of that, but at some stage there was a moral hazard. In the end, Microsoft ended up driving from the market application software markers who played a role in promoting sales of Microsoft's operating systems. These types of anti-competitive acts were repeated, and, as a result, they couldn't be overlooked by the Department of Justice, which led to the order to break up the company at this time. I wrote on this in detail in the August issue of Voice published by PHP, which I would like you to read.

In the meantime, Netscape, which was Microsoft's rival in the WWW browsers that became the focus of this trial, has already lost, and it ended up being bought out by AOL. Because Microsoft immediately appealed, the trial itself will be further argued at a higher court, and it is unclear how long this will continue. Even if, for the sake of argument, Microsoft is broken up into an operating system company and an application software company, the fact is that two companies with strong monopolies will come into existence, and the situation will not necessarily get better.

If we talk in terms of the personal computer, the personal computer itself has already been transformed into a dedicated Windows machine. Intel and Microsoft have decided the hardware specification, and as for peripheral equipment drivers, only those for Windows use have been prepared by peripheral equipment makers. Although makers who make their driver specifications public are still conscientious, because there are also many makers who try to cope using driver modifications when hardware improvements and bugs appear, there's little hope.

Since the paucity of drivers has become a handicap even with their own Windows NT (now Windows 2000), you can probably easily imagine what it's like for other operating systems. Because there are these kinds of disadvantageous conditions, no matter how much one says Linux is rising, it is a little difficult to conceive that with things this way both a desktop environment and application software will be completed, and that Linux will become a rival to the present Windows. By parting with Windows and building a computer that will become a new platform, one will probably at the least have to do such things as obtaining cooperation involving peripheral makers and application software makers.

Also, according to various forecasts, Internet access will lead to the end of the personal computer age, and cell-phones on the other hand will become mainstream. To give an example, previously we listened to music in front of large stereos, but now listening with portable players is probably something seems to have become natural. Beginning with i-mode, even cell-phones loaded with a WWW browser function have surpassed 10 million sets. In many of these, a compact, ITRON-specification operating system is used. When you change platforms, the game changes greatly. Although Microsoft also will probably participate in operating systems for cell-phones and Internet appliances, creating a monopoly will probably be difficult.

Even Microsoft sees there are limits based on its package software. On June 23, the company announced a strategy called "Dot-Net" through which it will move the focus of its business to the Internet, but American journalists are giving it scathing criticism.

Time is on the move. As is the case with IBM, which flourished from the 1960s through the 1980s thanks to large-scale computer systems, even giants weaken with the change of time and become ordinary enterprises.

The above opinion piece by TRON Project Leader Ken Sakamura appeared on page 1 of Vol. 64 of TRONWARE. It was translated and loaded onto this page with the permission of Personal Media Corporation.

Copyright © 2000 Personal Media Corporation

Copyright © 2000 Sakamura Laboratory, University Museum, University of Tokyo