Monday, May 18, 1998

Microsoft vs Megahard

OK, the US gummint is going after Microsoft in a Sherman Act trustbusting court case. The cause: bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, which stomps the competition -- Netscape and friends. Why did Gates do that in the first place? What's he up to?

This has been said before, but let me boil it down for the record.

Gates has foreseen (like SF writers 15 years ago) that the PC is going to evolve from a home number-cruncher for writing letters and doing taxes. It's going to turn into a media platform, connected to the pipeline of the Internet the way your tube is connected to coaxial cable (and Comcast and other monopoly mofos pumping in content and charging what the traffic will bear). Once a fiberoptic network gets put in place, bandwidth will shoot through the roof. This bandwidth will allow bigass sound and video files to zip into your CPU with ease. Granted Moore's law, the box of the future will have a shitload of processing power. People will watch TV and movies -- and possibly create their own TV and movies -- on their PCs. Like Colossus and his commie AI counterpart, TV and PC will probably merge.

I'm not exactly sure who owns -- or is going to own -- the emerging fiberoptic spiderweb. The phone companies? Comcast? The government? Is it a public utility? Is it subject to common carrier laws? Don't ask me.

But I'm pretty sure Bill Gates is not going to own it.

So, if you can't own the road -- own the toll booths. Own the portal at the end of the web where all the content pumps into the user's PC. In other words, own the Internet Browser.

That's his strategy. Gates has seen that the PC will become a media platform -- and the receiving end of a media pipeline connected to a media market. I.e.: content for sale. It's a safe bet that he'll be selling. Like Sony -- he's also going to go into the content creation and distribution business. Probably buy a TV network and a recording company or two, maybe a movie studio. Or build Gates Studios in Seattle from scratch. Or create a virtual studio, networked together from content creators all over the country. But he'll be selling.

That's what makes this important. It ain't the monopoly of today Gates is interested in. It's the monopoly of tomorrow.

Bundling IE lets him get a leg up on the competition of future content providers. If he pulls it off, Gates will potentially have a record store, a video store, a movieplex -- and who knows what else -- inside your computer. Gates will be in the position of the old Hollywood Studios, who owned both the production end and the distribution end -- the movie palaces where audiences paid to watch their content. This will not be an official monopoly, but he'll dominate the market. It'll just be easier to go to the Bill Gates jukebox and click the tune you want. If he gets his infrastructure in place ahead of the competition, that is.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I hate monopolies. On the other hand, monopolies get things done -- especially in terms of massive, infrastructural networks. Like railroads, electricity, telephone, etc.

This sorta thing works on a feedback loop. If the network's in place, folks buy more stuff which prompts the network builders to expand and upgrade the network allowing the sale of more stuff; hence creating another feedback loop jump starting the creation of more content for this new market; and another feedback loop energizing smarter and better PCs with more and more processing power.

We could easily wind up with the giant, flatscreen, voice-operated, high definition computer/TVs as seen in Back to the Future II by 2005. If the government busts Microsoft cyberspace landgrab -- or even slows it down -- this quantum leap of tech could take another ten years or so. The tech firms and venture capitalists gambling on this wave of business opportunity could wind up on their collective ass. Silicon Valley could turn into Death Valley. That's probably pessimistic. But it's probably realistic to think a Microsoft antitrust bust will put the future on hold.

I hate monopolies.

But I want my flatscreen, voice-operated MTV.

It's a dilemma, ain't it?

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