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‘Evil Empire’ Is Unlikely to Fall, but Competition Is at the Gates

Has the world’s most successful and important technology company also become the most hated?

Enemies have always lambasted the “evil empire” in Redmond, Wash. But when the antitrust trial provided titillating looks at the company’s sheer hubris and raw power, it became open season on Microsoft.

Editorialists decry the company’s lock on the software industry, Justice Department legal eagles hone their blades to slice it up into “Baby Bills,” and scores of anti-Microsoft Web sites and newsgroups foam at their virtual mouths--some featuring obscenities and death threats against Bill Gates.

Does this array of outrage represent a genuine mass resistance movement? After all, it’s one thing to hate Microsoft’s power (or envy its wealth and success) and another to change your computing habits in a world where 90% of PCs run Windows.

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The staying power of Netscape’s Communicator Web browser suite in the face of Microsoft’s full-court press with its Internet Explorer, and the growing popularity of Linux--a Windows NT competitor designed for server computers and technology sophisticates--suggest that there are more than just a few whiners out there. (The Macintosh, the original anti-Microsoft magnet, has enjoyed a recent renewal. But given Microsoft’s strong software support and sizable stake in Apple Computer, the Mac has lost its poignancy as an anti-Microsoft icon.)

To be sure, while Linux and Communicator are quality products, neither offers clear superiority.

The recently released Explorer 5.0 offers a radio feature as well as enhanced search and mail services, convincing many reviewers that Explorer has leapfrogged Communicator.

Linux offers a couple of important advan-

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tages over Windows NT: It crashes less often and it’s free. However, Linux can be maddeningly complex to install, works only with a narrow range of peripheral devices and software programs and comes without support--unless you pay upward of $1,000 for it.

So why are many users choosing alternatives whose most appealing quality may be that they are simply not from Microsoft?

For large corporations, having at least two suppliers can spur both players to work harder--a hedge against monopolistic complacency. PC manufacturers that have shown little stomach for challenging Microsoft in the past now offer Linux as an alternative to Windows.

But it’s harder to envision the typical PC owner using Communicator to strike a blow against Microsoft’s empire.

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“Most of us aren’t using our PCs to fight political battles; we’re just following the path of least resistance to get our work done,” said Phil Lemmons, editorial director of PC World magazine. “How many consumers will be so noble to go to extra trouble to make sure that there will be diversity in software choices? Very few.”

Still, all computer users have a compelling reason to hope that a movement of Linux and Communicator users emerges. Such action could create a viable software development counterweight.

Linux and Communicator are the brightest lights of the “open source” movement, a method of software development in which the “source code” (computer instructions comprising the details of a software program) is distributed freely to encourage large numbers of independent developers to improve the product.

Open source lets software developers compete on a more equal footing--one reason Microsoft is expected to resist publishing the Windows source code as a possible remedy in its antitrust trial.

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Average users should also care about open source--but not for obvious reasons.

Open-source advocates argue that in the long run, average users get a better, more responsive product when programmers freely innovate as user needs dictate. In contrast, users of Microsoft products rely on a single company to fix bugs and implement the right technologies effectively and rapidly.

Unfortunately, the argument carries only so far.

Linux has improved quickly and dramatically, while Windows 2000 (NT’s new name in a yet-to-be-released version) is running way behind schedule.

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But on balance, speed hardly guarantees superiority. Unix, the original open-source operating system (from which Linux emerged), had so many developers that it rapidly fragmented to the point of chaos. And open-source improvements have yet to boost Communicator over Explorer.

“The market really wants a single strong provider that will own the product, rather than a committee that will vote on how the product should mature,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Norwell, Mass.-based Giga Information Group.

But even if it doesn’t always generate superior products, open source is one of the few viable competitive models to go up against Microsoft’s massive resources.

And that’s the key: Competition always provides more and better choices.

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Consider that when Microsoft monopolizes a category--as in operating systems and office productivity software--its products become overly complex, bloated, bug-ridden and habitually late. Where the company faces meaningful competition--browsers, personal finance software, games and e-mail--its products, while far from perfect, are widely viewed as more innovative and responsive to customer needs.

Microsoft’s recent reorganization into five divisions to focus on customer service suggests that it’s feeling a lot of heat, regardless of what happens in the antitrust courtroom.

So while the users of Communicator and Linux may not rise to the level of mass resistance to monopolization, you can at least thank them for prodding Microsoft to serve us all better.

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Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at charles.piller@latimes.com.


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