The federal government’s anti-trust prosecution of Microsoft, and media coverage of it, has been a fascinating exercise in avoiding the real issues. The story is tailor-made for two of of our favorite infotainment images: personalizing institutional issues (in this case, big government vs. Bill Gates), and the fall of the powerful and wealthy. For local media- -which, despite its extensive coverage of any and every gleam in the eyes of Redmond media spinners, avoided this story until it became major national news last week–the focus is on possible lost profits. But the story’s real importance for most of us, and its implications, have gotten precious little attention.

If you use a personal computer, you probably also use Microsoft software: DOS, Windows, Word, Excel, Access, Word for Macintosh, Basic, or one (or more) of a dozen other applications, operating systems, or programming languages. If you’ve purchased an IBM-clone PC in the last three years, you’ve probably also bought Windows–an annoyingly slow, inefficient, and poorly designed clone of the Apple operating system. You probably know that, unless you buy Microsoft application programs (Word, Excel, Access, Mail, etc.), you’ll find that Windows performs so poorly, you’ll wish that you’d kept that old 286 with its DOS programs.

Microsoft has a lock on the PC market, with over 80% of all PCs sold carrying Windows software, and nearly that many carrying Microsoft applications programs, because (as everyone knows) Microsoft writes code into Windows to prevent other companies’ applications from working efficiently with Windows. In spite of Microsoft’s promise to the Justice Department when it signed a consent decree in 1995, there are no real walls between Microsoft’s operating systems development teams (DOS and Windows) and its applications teams.

And now Microsoft is in trouble again, for extending its monopoly on the PC software market to the Internet. The real conflict is over its Web browser, Internet Explorer, which competitors say is a separate applications program running on top of Windows, while Microsoft claims it’s an integral part of Windows. The evidence seems to favor Microsoft’s competitors, especially after Compaq Computer executives testified that Microsoft tried to cancel Compaq’s license to load Windows 95 on new computers when the company wanted to remove the Internet Explorer software-~an easy operation that involves changing only a few lines of code in the Windows 95 program.

The judge in charge of the government’s case has ruled that Microsoft must stop using strong-arm tactics to sell its browser software, but he’s also refused to enforce the Justice Department’s levy of a $1 million fine on Microsoft for each day it continues to package and market Internet Explorer as part of Windows 95. He’s appointed a technical investigator to review the case and report back to him by May 31. Until that time, Microsoft can continue business as usual. By the end of 1997, Microsoft will have approximately 50% of the Internet browser market sewn up. By May 1998, they’ll undoubtedly dominate the market for Internet browser software. The judge’s decision amounted to less than a slap on the wrist. In fact, it practically assures that Microsoft will continue unimpeded in its drive to control the Internet.

Microsoft’s competitors have taken the cheapest, but also least effective, route to hamstring Big Green: using taxpayer money to sue the company via the Justice Department, instead of taking Microsoft directly to court and footing the bill for their own legal expenses. It’s interesting to watch influential companies like Novell, IBM, Oracle, and Netscape Communications push the government to work on their behalf, and yet suffer the same frustrating response that average people do when we ask for something from the feds. This whole business make it obvious who the government works for: Microsoft is bigger and more influential than its competitors. Period.

The technical issues involved aren’t hard to understand: Microsoft’s competitors want a standard language to operate on all devices that access the Internet, from PCs to new “network computers”-~cheaper, stripped-down models of PCs that are made just for accessing the Internet. Their language of choice is Java, which is “platform-independent” (it can run on any kind of computer). But it’s still a proprietary language, written and developed by Sun Microsystems. With Java in place as a standard, any company can write and sell software applications that can run easily and smoothly on top of it, because Sun has never written hidden code into Java that will keep other companies’ applications from working with it, as Microsoft has done with Windows. Microsoft sees this as a direct threat to its dominant Windows operating system, and is out to get rid of Java, just as it has driven other competing operating systems off the market.

Just in case you’re thinking that Sun Microsystems and its business partners are the good guys, here’s Marc Andreessen of Netscape Communications: “There’s a very strong incentive for us to push as hard and as fast as possible toward a world where operating systems are commoditized, chips are commoditized, and the Net becomes the platform. We all see an opportunity to make a tremendous amount of money as that world unfolds.” That’s their goal, plain and simple–make a lot of money, regardless of how it’s done. If Microsoft goes down so that Sun and Netscape can rise, so much the better.

The real story here is that regardless of what the Justice Department decides, the Internet is rapidly moving away from being a diverse community of users sharing information using non-proprietary software (shareware) like Unix and Linux. It will soon become yet another privately-owned and operated utility, and a monopoly, too. It won’t matter very much if it’s Microsoft’s operating system (Windows) or Sun Microsystems’ language (Java) that controls our access to the Internet; the effect is the same. We’ll pay more in software upgrades, access fees, hookup costs, and other fees, and this will exclude everyone but privileged and well-educated people from accessing the Internet. We’ll lose our ability to screen out advertising, access the Internet without government regulation, and eventually our freedom of speech. Having a standard language or operating system in place may make the Internet more efficient, but with that efficiency we’ll lose the diversity that makes the Internet a valuable resource for information and communication. Instead, it will become a lot like TV’-and who needs another home shopping network?

Right now, if you can switch to a low-cost, local, small Internet service provider that uses Unix or Linux, you should do it, before these businesses disappear altogether or merge into larger behemoths, like America On-Line, Compuserve, AT&T, or the Microsoft Network. In Seattle, you can join the non-profit Seattle Community Network free of charge. Many non-profits run Internet and email service providers; it’s worth searching for one you like. Unix, Pine, and Tin may be more difficult to learn to use, but with some patience you can do it. In another year or two, you won’t have the wide range of choices you have now. Take advantage of them while you can.