Sunday, 27 April 2014

If Microsoft had done this ...

One of the effects of being involved in IT for years is the questions you ask when you see a story or article written about the current big hitters and 'popular' technology corporations.

From the mid 1990s until the early days of Steve Ballmer's tenure as Microsoft CEO the company faced big questions about its business practices. Whatever the arguments were is now IT history but the EU fined Microsoft many millions of dollars for bundling their browser into their Windows operating system and demanded that a 'browser ballot' screen on their OS. They also objected to a media player being bundled. In the USA the tough anti-trust laws were concerned that Microsoft had used it's power in the operating system market to force computer manufacturers to install Windows by default making Windows the market monopolist in PCs and pushing out alternatives.

Microsoft, to many technology enthusiasts, became 'evil' and was perceived to be stifling innovation and just in it for the money. Even today when Microsoft announce something the technology press almost say 'Meh' and 'so what' whilst simultaneously cheerleading for the 'cool kids' like Apple, Google and Facebook.

Having worked with enterprise systems for 25+ years it would be bad for me not to declare an interest that I am firmly embedded in the Microsoft ecosystem of products and services. I think almost anyone who works with servers and enterprise IT has to have more than a passing understanding of Microsoft products. However I am no fanboy having used Google services and Apple products too. My question is how would the IT press and regulators act if Microsoft had behaved like Apple, Google and Facebook.

In the 'search' market Google dominates and uses it's position to almost decide whether businesses do well or fail via search rankings. It's products are linked in a broad system of advertising relationships to users data to advertisers across the internet in monopolistic use of their own services. Their Android operating system requires specific services be integrated if manufacturers want to provide apps through the Google Play store effectively dominating a system that should be an open OS. It has a near monopoly of the OS in the mobile space via Android.

Yet few questions are asked by the US government or the EU about anti-trust. Users don't see this as an 'evil empire' but, because the services are 'free' at the point of use almost a benevolent provider.

Facebook similarly dominates social networking. Many websites require you sign-in with a Facebook id just to use their service. Facebook dominate social network advertising. Amazon dominate eBook readers.

There almost seems a journalist double standard. Regulators and the law are also playing catch-up in the digital economy. Almost no lawmakers understand technology and they direct their attention to regulation of internet pornography and child access (which do need attention) but neglect the wider framework.

Once you have book eBooks from Amazon they are locked to amazon. Buy a movie from Apple and it's locked into ITunes. Corporations want the lock in to keep customers - I understand this. However after the experience of the years in which Microsoft was publicly shamed for this I wonder if the current crop of aspiring monopolists are being treated differently.

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