Microsoft and the Anointed

"Arguing in My Spare Time" No. 2.21

Nov. 8, 1999

by Arnold Kling

May not be redistributed commercially without the author's permission.

I live in a neighborhood where liberalism is so entrenched that my friends have no idea how to argue with conservatives. Diversity in political discussion consists of articulating different ways to denounce the evils of Republicans.

Regarding public schools, for example, my neighbors are unanimous in their view that vouchers and school choice represent a plot by religious conservatives to undermine our way of life. However, at a personal level, about half of my white liberal neighbors send their own children to private schools.

The remaining white liberal parents recently went on the warpath against some of the actions of the high school principal, a black woman. They were surprised to find that their tactics provoked a negative response from the local black community. "But we’re doing this to help the underprivileged!" one of the white liberals shouted in frustration.

Watching this conflict develop between the liberals and their supposed constituency, it struck me that it is not accidental that one of my favorite conservative tracts, "The Vision of the Anointed," came to be written by an African American. My guess is that Thomas Sowell has spent a lot of time listening to white liberals telling him "what’s good for you people," and this experience has helped shape his conservatism. His book describes liberals as so captivated by their vision of perfection that they tune out any contrary indicator, whether it be an alternative point of view or a plain recitation of facts.

Which brings me to the initial judicial finding against Microsoft in the anti-trust trial. I am not sufficiently well versed in the legal and technical issues to know whether the judge’s "finding of fact" was correct or not. On the other hand, my liberal friends, who probably know less than I do, are quite certain in their reaction. They are ecstatic.

One neighbor said that she thinks that the judge’s finding means that she finally will be able to use a computer. Like many non-technical people, she has not been able to conquer the many counter-intuitive aspects of Microsoft’s operating system, as exemplified by the fact that in order to shut down your computer you click on "start."

I am not sure how the judge is going to address my neighbor’s concern. In fact, I am curious to see how the judge will address any of the issues that have been raised about Microsoft.

The complaints that one hears about Microsoft include:

  1. Personal computers are too difficult to use, at least for the non-technical consumer.
  2. Linux is more elegant.
  3. Windows crashes too often.
  4. Windows stifles innovation.
  5. Bureaucrats make bad decisions to go with Microsoft solutions.
  6. Microsoft does too well, and its competitors do too poorly.

Now the judge has an opportunity to address all of these issues. What is he going to do?

Suppose that the judge wants to make computers easier to use. How is he going to make this happen? Will he order Microsoft to design a more intuitive interface? What if they do not know how to do this? As I recall, Microsoft "Bob" was not well received.

Will the judge "pave the way" for other companies to innovate in the user interface? Are inventors out there who are so afraid of Microsoft that they are keeping superior interfaces off the market until they receive some legal protection? If so, what form of legal protection do they need?

Some opponents of Microsoft perhaps would like to see Linux promoted as the alternative. For most people, of course, Linux makes computers more difficult to use. Linux appeals primarily to users who enjoy using a command-line interface to enter instructions like "egrep –f foobar | more."

Windows crashes often. Every user knows this and is frustrated by it. If the judge has some enhancements in mind that could make Windows more robust, then he definitely should order Microsoft to implement those changes.

Part of the reason that Windows crashes so often is that it has undergone constant change. It changed in order to adapt to innovation. In fact, when it comes to providing the average user with access to new peripheral devices and new software, Windows was more conducive to innovation than any competing operating system. One could argue that it is precisely on the issue of maintaining pace with innovation that Unix and the Macintosh operating systems were unable to compete in the desktop environment. One could argue further that it is only the slowdown in PC-centric innovation due to the advent of the Web that has made possible both the revival of Apple and the plausibility of Linux for the desktop. If the judge wants the locus of innovation to return to the PC, he is going to have to shut down the Internet.

Many individuals are frustrated by the fact that they are forced to use Microsoft products that do not suit them. This is because of bureaucratic decisions.

For example, I recently talked to a corporate systems manager who said, proudly, "We go 100% Microsoft." He felt that this simplified his process for budgeting, training, application development, and software integration.

Later, I interviewed his head of network operations. At one point, this gentleman mentioned that he had been awake for 33 straight hours. This offhand remark tended to reinforce the skepticism that one hears about the stability of networks based on Microsoft NT.

Later, he said that although he would prefer to out-source the hosting and connectivity of his Web servers, he did not feel that Windows NT could be administered remotely. Therefore, he was planning to build an expensive in-house data center.

Still later, I interviewed the web site producer. At one point, this gentleman mentioned that they only make changes to their site once a week, because the process of compiling, propagating, and testing a change across multiple servers takes over eight hours.

The result of all of these interviews certainly did not convince me to switch our Web site environment away from Sun Solaris. However, perhaps for this other organization, the advantages of being "100% Microsoft" outweigh the disadvantages.

In any organization, there are going to be trade-offs in the choice of computing platform. Some constituencies will be favored by using Microsoft, while other constituencies will be harmed. Bureaucrats may or may not make the best choices for their organizations. I cannot see how the judge intends to second-guess all of these individual bureaucratic decisions.

This leaves us with the sixth complaint, which is that Microsoft makes a lot of money, and some of its competitors do not. My guess is that this is the only complaint that the judge will have any success in addressing. It seems reasonable to bet that Microsoft’s pockets will be a little less full. Probably at least 75% of the money that they lose will go to lawyers, with the remainder going to the owners of competing software companies. This may be an optimistic view of what the competing software companies will receive.

Microsoft’s fate now is in the hands of the anointed. Legal authorities, believing that they know how to correct the imperfect products of engineers and businessmen, will be able to impose their vision on us. Based on my reading of Thomas Sowell, I greet this prospect with fear rather than ecstasy.