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Published on Wednesday, June 14, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian
Just Who Is This Telling Microsoft That It Has Stifled Competition?
by John O'Farrell
Included free with Windows 2000 will be a computerised edition of the game Monopoly. In this version, Microsoft already owns every property from Old Kent Road to Mayfair and you just go round and round giving the company lots of money. You try to tell yourself it is not fixed, but when Bill Gates wins second prize in a beauty competition you can't help being suspicious.

For the past two years, in a legal battle more difficult to understand than the Microsoft user's manual, the computer giant has been found guilty of anti-competitive practices and abusing its monopoly power. Considering how aggressively Microsoft has consistently stamped on any competition, its lawyers really should have seen this lawsuit coming, but then this is the company whose computers failed to foresee that the year 2000 would follow 1999, so you can't presume anything.

Now an American judge has ordered Gates to spell out, in detail, how he is going to break up his company - which should be interesting. After four hours the judge will stop him and say: "Sorry, just going back a bit there, can you explain what a mouse-mat is again?"

Since losing the case Bill Gates has seen his personal wealth drop by around $25bn, so he has had to postpone the loft conversion that he and his wife had been saving up for. Internet Explorer will probably no longer be given free with Windows, which means that the poor customer will end up having to pay more to look at hardcore pornography and white supremacist sites. It is of course true that Microsoft has stifled competition, but just a moment . . . who is it that is saying that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable? The United States government! This would be like Gates telling Clinton he's a bit nerdy. There are a number of monopolies in this world but the US has a monopoly of all of them.

Of course, this case is not really about free trade. It is a battle between the world's most powerful country and the world's most powerful company. It is the first flashpoint in the new cold war between nation states and corporations. More battles between the giants will follow; Japan versus Sony, Korea versus Daewoo, Britain versus Top Shop. America won the first cold war on behalf of capitalism. And what thanks do they get? Capitalism then proceeds to push America aside and the next struggle ensues.

Gates should now hit back by counter-suing the US for operating anti-competitive practices. He would have a very good case. As a government, the US has consistently stifled free trade. Tiny independent operators like Cuba and Nicaragua have been virtually forced out of business and all sorts of international laws broken in the process.

With the kind of breath- taking arrogance that you only get from the leaders of world superpowers and 17-year-old public school boys, America actually attempted to make it illegal for European countries to trade with Cuba; the case against America is even greater than the one against its richest citizen. Like Microsoft the US has a variety of operating systems; in the Balkans they used Nato, but the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and even the United Nations itself have all been called into play at various times. This will probably be the last European football championship in which a team from Europe is allowed to win.

Any fair-minded judge would have to agree that like Microsoft, the US has abused its monopoly of power and must therefore be broken up. It has refused to operate a level playing field and so must be separated into its constituent parts. Dividing it between north and south is one option, but this was tried before apparently, and caused all sorts of problems. You could split it between Democrats and Republicans or Pepsi and Coke drinkers or between the pro- and anti-gun lobby, though this might be a bit unfair if another civil war broke out. But the American courts have ruled that monopolies should not be allowed to dominate and so the US must be as good as its word. If Microsoft Windows is not allowed to give you free bundled software, then each Americanised country should not automatically get a McDonald's in every high street and Jerry Springer repeats on their TV channels.

There must be a way of dividing America up so that we continue to get Seinfeld and ER, but are not compelled to get the rest of the American culture that is bundled in with it. Can we have the films without having to watch the speeches at the Oscars? Can we have the music without the graffiti on our subways? The break up of America will be such a complex job that somebody will have to design a computer programme to do it. If only Microsoft hadn't been fragmented. It probably had a free programme on Windows 2000 that could have done it all for us.

Guardian Newspapers Limited


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