Microsoft chief Bill Gates and a few of his most vocal rivals spent a day on Capitol Hill a couple of weeks ago talking about "competition in the computer industry."
Just about everyone in the room, except Gates, took it for granted that Microsoft has a monopoly on PC operating systems, which some fear could eventually extend to the Internet. Gates, of course, denied the charge, saying that other companies could unseat Microsoft if they offered consumers a better product.
If only that were true. The sad fact is that in technology, better doesn't always win, especially once a company has entrenched itself in the minds and machines of the overwhelming majority of users.
Machines that run the dominant OS are in greater supply and, generally, cheaper to buy. Software is far more plentiful, and it's easier to find compatible peripheral devices. Although Windows-based, IBM-compatible machines are harder to use than some alternatives, there are many more sources of assistance for those who need help.
The Apple-versus-Microsoft battle illustrates that it wasn't pure functionality that carried the day for Windows. Though the relative merits of Windows 95 and the Mac OS are debatable today, there was no contest before 1990.
Just about every reviewer, including yours truly, gave the thumbs-up to Apple, yet the firm's unwillingness to license its OS and its higher prices contributed to Apple's inability to ever gain more than about a 10% market share. It's a vicious cycle. Even though Macs are now more affordable, Apple's share is even lower, thanks in part to the simple fact that they're different.
Though it might be considered ancient history, Microsoft itself, in partnership with IBM, had intended to replace Windows' ancestor, DOS, with a more advanced system called OS/2, but it abandoned its role in the project to focus on Windows. IBM attempted to carry the ball and valiantly released several versions of OS/2, only to be thwarted by the hegemony Microsoft had already achieved. OS/2 still exists, but it's been relegated to a narrow segment of IBM's customer base.
In addition to OS/2, there are several worthy non-Microsoft operating systems that run on Intel-based machines. One option, Linux, is a version of the popular Unix system that users can download for free or buy from Caldera (http://www.caldera.com), Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com) and other companies.
The main markets for Linux, according to Red Hat, are Internet service providers and scientific and technical organizations. Experts say the operating system is more compact, faster and less prone to crash than Windows 95.
Be Inc., headed by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee, is developing a version of its lauded but little-known BeOS operating system to run on IBM-compatible machines.
I doubt if Linux or BeOS will ever become commonplace, but they do represent alternatives.
Clearly, these operating systems face uphill battles. Aside from compatibility issues and customer preferences, they must overcome the bundling hurdle. Today, almost all major PC vendors offer a choice of only two operating systems: Windows 95 and Windows NT. Later this year, there may be a third: Windows 98. It reminds me of the old telephone business. You could order any kind of phone service as long as it was AT&T.;
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader thinks PC vendors should give consumers a choice of operating systems. Nader, along with James Love of the Consumer Project on Technology, has written to the heads of Dell, Gateway, Micron, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Packard Bell asking them to offer their customers "the option of at least some alternative to the Windows OS."
As of this writing, none has responded to the letter, according to Love, but, frankly, even if they go along with the proposal, I doubt it would have any short-term impact.
One problem, of course, is compatible software. Even Mac users are increasingly having trouble finding a good selection of programs from companies that have a far greater economic incentive to develop for the dominant Windows platform. While there are spreadsheets, Internet browsers, word-processing programs and other applications for alternative operating systems, consumers looking for games, educational programs and a wider choice of business software are going to find the pickings slim.
If, for all these reasons, the prognosis for the success of alternative desktop operating systems is bleak, the Internet offers a glimmer of hope for those who want to prevent Microsoft from completely dominating the computing world. Therein lies the significance of the battle of the browsers that is being played out in the courts and Congress as well as in the marketplace.
End users have a vested interest in encouraging this open environment, because it means more choice and greater incentives for Microsoft and the rest of the industry to improve their products.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com.