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Maybe the antitrust laws are wrong

By Rachel Alexander
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 1, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Rachel Alexander

This month Microsoft goes to trial with the U.S. Justice Department over alleged antitrust violations. The investigation is focusing mainly on whether Microsoft used its monopoly over computer operating systems to obtain more market power for its products.

Critics claim that Microsoft broke antitrust laws against "tying": bundling a competitive product with a less competitive product. Recently, these attacks have focused on Microsoft's bundling of its competitive Windows 95 operating system with its less competitive Internet Explorer browser.

Yet should this be an illegal antitrust violation? You buy shampoo bundled with conditioner every day, which is a beneficial convenience, and this is not prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

Bundling products together makes sense. Look at one historical example of developing technology: the car. The car began as a simple machine, then features were added as technology developed. Consumers benefited from this bundling, since it streamlined the process of obtaining these products, while bringing the price down. As car manufacturers learned how to combine the parts more efficiently, the overall price continued to decrease. Considering all of the benefits that arise from including more and more features on a car, it would make no sense to try to define what constitutes the "inherent scope" of a car.

Similarly, Microsoft has combined its products over the years, providing consumers with the additional software programs they wanted, while making them cheaper and easier to use by combining them. Microsoft DOS incorporated software for hard disk defragmenting and disk-compression. Microsoft Windows gradually encompassed a calculator, games, a paint program, back-up software, screensavers, Internet and telephone software, fax software and word processing.

Windows 95 absorbed DOS to some extent, making the operating system easier to use for novices. Since all of the software used the same standards, users could be assured that it was compatible.

Now Microsoft is combining its Windows operating system with its browser, Internet Explorer. Since computer software technology is moving toward the Internet, Microsoft is again adapting its products, this time to provide consumers with Internet adaptability.

Instead of complaining about bundling products, why aren't Microsoft's competitors focusing on developing better products than Microsoft? You cannot force people in America to buy outdated, inconvenient products, even if you have the government on your side.

That is known as communism.

Perhaps the real problem is the existence of the antitrust laws themselves. Hardly anyone today bothers to question the usefulness of the these laws. But what have they actually accomplished? Over time, monopolies break down without the interference of antitrust laws, unless they are government-sanctioned monopolies, such as AT&T.

In the early 1980's, the U.S. Justice Department undertook a costly antitrust investigation of IBM, which resulted in nothing. A few years later, competition broke up IBM's monopoly. The move towards PCs and away from mainframes led to its demise in power, not an antitrust investigation.

Similarly, Microsoft is eventually headed down that same path. Critics contend that Microsoft gave away its browser, Internet Explorer, for free in order to monopolize the browser market. But maybe Microsoft gave it away free because it was losing out in the Internet realm; current technology is moving in the direction of Internet-related software, whereas Microsoft's hegemony has been primarily in operating system and business software.

Giving Internet Explorer away for free was its desperate attempt to try and get consumers to use its inferior Internet product. Microsoft's attempts to get into the Internet provider business have been equally dismal; its Microsoft Network service has consistently lost revenue for the company.

Even Microsoft's monopolistic control over the operating system market and the business software market is in the throes of decline. For years, Microsoft has successfully convinced users that they need their own PC, with their own software, in their home and at work. But companies are slowly beginning to realize that this duplication of products is unnecessary. Instead, all that is really necessary is one large mainframe, with several inexpensive terminals attached to it, known as "thin clients." Individual users log into the mainframe, which is able to run many more programs, and larger programs, than any small PC ever could, and much faster. Eventually, even Internet service providers will provide these as a cheaper, better option, eliminating the need for most people to purchase a home computer.

As the government, aided by Microsoft's jealous competitors, continues its fruitless investigation against Microsoft, we can expect the quality and price of products to decline. Instead of adapting products to fit the changes in technology, the government has decided it wants to adapt companies to fit the government. Janet Reno, the head of the U.S. Justice Department, doesn't even use a computer. I can only imagine where this is all going.

Rachel Alexander is a third-year law student who has worked in the computer field for five years. Her column, Common Sense appears on alternate Tuesdays. Rachel Alexander can be reached via e-mail at

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