They accuse the software giant of copying smaller firms' products, quashing competition and nothing less than attempting to establish its own world order. Sites such as www.microsuck.com and www.microsloth.com chronicle a history of Bill Gates' greed and predatory business practices, and go so far as to refer to Microsoft as the "Big Brother" of the techno age.
It's true that Gates has become fabulously wealthy. He made about $8 million per workday hour in 1996. And it's no secret that Microsoft has its fingers in just about every slice of the computing pie.
Meanwhile, industry competitors, activists, and the Department of Justice recently have challenged Microsoft on a variety of fronts. To understand Microsoft's opponents and critics, it's important to understand just how pervasive the company has become.
The peculiar nature of the computer industry facilitates Microsoft's continued dominance. Namely, the desktop, server, development, web browsing and other computing markets are inextricably linked. For maximum compatibility and familiarity, users are forced to gravitate towards products produced by one company: Microsoft.
According to a comprehensive white paper available at www.netaction.org/msoft/, 94 percent of new computers, 80 percent of word processors and 65 percent of new corporate intranets involve Microsoft software. Earlier this month none other than consumer advocate extraordinaire Ralph Nader organized a conference entitled "Appraising Microsoft and its Global Strategies." (Microsoft refused to appear, calling the conference a "witch hunt.")
The challenge that has garnered the most media attention, however, is a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in October. Federal attorneys have asked for a $1 million-per-day fine until Microsoft stops requiring computer sellers to bundle Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser with Windows 95.
The feds hold that Microsoft is in violation of a 1995 anti-trust agreement which prohibits Microsoft from tying the licensing of one product to the licensing of another.
Microsoft counters that the browser is an integral part of the operating system, not a separate product. Besides, says Gates, "We're giving away a product for free! This breaks no laws‹the government should not be involved."
But by giving away the browser, the feds say, Microsoft is unfairly crushing competition. This assertion stems from anti-trust laws that prevent companies from selling one product below cost and using the profits from another product in order to drive away competitors.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has also been playing a major role in the training of those who will create the software of the future. Partnerships with various learning centers and educational institutions further ensure a wealth of Microsoft-friendly developers.
Microsoft has even been known to lure key employees away from their employers‹a common business practice which raises ethical questions nonetheless, especially, when done on a scale that recalls the corporate raids of the '80s. For example, a raid of the Borland company's top developers, resulted in the defection of 34 talented engineers and programmers. This spring, Borland sued, and an out-of-court settlement was reached in September.
More often, Microsoft simply buys the competing corporation. The company spent nearly $5 billion during the last three years to extend its reach. Dozens of companies have been consumed, including key innovators in the fields of audio and video "streaming" technology, which will be crucial in the delivery of popular media via the Internet. Additionally, Microsoft has invested billions in alternative delivery methods
With a $9 billion war chest, Gates and co. show no signs of slowing down. Microsoft supporters say that it's exactly because of this computing industry "network" effect that the company is so valuable to consumers; the centralized control that Microsoft exerts allows customers to be confident in the broad compatibility of numerous applications.
But critics assert that Microsoft exploits their dominance unfairly. The buzz about Java reflects one such case, where on the surface at least, Microsoft's detractors have a point.
When Sun Microsystems developed Java, it was touted as the first "write once, run anywhere" programming language. This lack of dependence on any one system made Java extremely attractive to software developers, who theoretically would no longer have to worry about whether their programs would be compatible.
This blatant threat to Microsoft's blanket of dominance did not go unnoticed. A $150 million deal with Apple ensured not only the bundling of Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser on every new Mac, but also support for Microsoft's Java extensions. Thus, the "write once, run anywhere" promise was obliterated.
On October 7, Sun sued for breach of contract. Microsoft countersued, denying Sun's charges. (It will be some time before any conclusion is reached.)
And just last week, the Justice Department issued a report in response to Microsoft's request that its own case against the software giant be thrown out. In it, email between top Microsoft officials is cited which clearly shows that the integration of the browser and the operating system was seen as an important goal. Federal lawyers claim this violates a 1995 court decree which specifically prevents Microsoft from tying the purchase of one product to another.
So, is Microsoft an Evil Empire or an American Success Story? It's probably a little bit of both, but if the playing field is going to stay even as technology develops, it's high time that our government rein in Mr. Gates' hordes.