July 1999

I am standing in a long, straight line at a food counter. There is a set of glass-enclosed food bins to my left. In front of me is a long, straight row of red plastic food trays sitting on a metal rack at hip level. Each tray is pushed down the line by a person who is trying to buy lunch. At the end of the line, in front of the cash register, a burly-armed cook splats a huge clod of mashed potatoes onto the tray. Afterwards, a dainty little waitress drops a pinch of rainbow-colored candy sprinkles on top. The cashier rings up $8.95 and drones loudly with a blank, empty stare to buyer after buyer.... "Greatness. Greatness. Greatness...."

Fortunately, you and I don't have to eat in such an establishment. We can go somewhere else, without penalty, without anxiety, without loss of job or reputation. There is a large degree of freedom of choice in the market for foodstuffs. If I don't like McDonald's burgers, I can go to Wendy's or Sonic or somewhere else. If I decide I don't want burgers, I can go to KFC or Pizza Hut or Long John Silver's. If I decide I don't want "fast food," I can sit down at a restaurant or a steak house and, for just a few dollars more, enjoy a tasty platter of well-cooked food.

The computer market is not like that.

The PC software marketplace is an awful lot like the first example. People line up, almost mindlessly, pay an overpriced bill, and receive a mish-mash of mediocre, wimpy, undigestible trash. Marketing hype, exclusionary license agreements, and short-term, profit-driven corporate cowardice make this situation a fact of life in store after store. Sure, an experienced PC buyer can find an alternative-OS vendor on the Internet, but the vast majority of first-time computer buyers get stuck in line with the morons pushing "Greatness" onto each and every plate.

To argue that Microsoft is not a monopoly is foolishness. We might as well watch a Department of Justice trial of a pizza vendor who has 90% market share not just of pizza, but of all fast-food. Imagine hearing Janet Reno complete a day of discussions with the government attorneys about "Gambino's Pizza" in a monopoly case, and then casually asking, "Well, what kind of Gambino food shall we order tonight?" Yes, you can order a Microsoft operating system from Compaq, IBM, Gateway, and the other biggies, but not operating systems from other companies. This is a lot like being able to get any color automobile as long as it is black, a la Henry Ford's Model T cars. That is why the very Department of Justice that is prosecuting Microsoft is also using Microsoft products, not the superior alternatives.

To argue that Microsoft has benefitted consumers by monopolizing the PC marketplace is just as foolish. For example, some know-it-alls claim that Microsoft has helped lower the price for PCs. If that was true, then why have computers just recently dropped below $500, some 25 YEARS after they were originally introduced to the public? Did VCRs take that long to become affordable? Did car stereos take that long to become affordable? Did any information appliance in the second half of the 20th century take 25 years to move from consumer introduction to consumer affordability -- calculators, music CDs, television? No, of course not.

The reality of the PC marketplace is that Microsoft's domination of the operating system has been very, very bad for the consumer. Consumers have had to pay far more for their hardware than they would have with multiple, freely competing operating system alternatives. Why? Because cheaper computers depend on having an operating system that does not require expensive, high-powered hardware to run. Indeed, an operating system like DOS could have been fixed to provide multitasking, crash protection, and other high-end capabilities -- including full Internet access -- running on a cheap 386 machine. (Ever hear of Quarterdeck DesqView?) Since the average consumer does not perform three or four simultaneous tasks, the average price of a typical home computer could have been $500 perhaps five or ten years ago. Since AMD and Cyrix have long had the capacity to build 386-class CPUs, Intel's computer-chip monopoly might even have crumbled faster, further dropping the cost of consumer PCs. Thus, it was Microsoft's policy of killing off operating systems as soon as there was cheap PC power available that unnaturally extended Intel's monopoly power over the PC hardware market.

The price for the operating system itself has been elevated dramatically over the past 20 years. From a low of $3 per copy in the early 1980s, Microsoft now charges as much as $85 per copy to many small PC manufacturers. This $85 premium is often more than the PC makers' hardware profit margins, which forces many small vendors out of business and thus reduces competition in the PC marketplace. The operating system is now the only truly high-margin item in the computer. Microsoft gets away with this through a dual policy of discontinuing older, faster technologies like DOS, while simultaneously discontinuing development support for older, more reliable DOS applications. By creating an artificial shortage of high-speed software, Microsoft creates an artificial demand for slower, low-quality junkware like Windows, as well as the unnecessarily high-powered hardware to run these behemoths.

Speaking of "artificial shortages," most Microsoft products have artificially-shortened life spans. Unlike VCRs and televisions which are subject to wear and tear according to the laws of physics, software does not inherently "wear out." Therefore, a copy of MS Office 4.3 from 1995 should theoretically work just fine for a lifetime. Yet Microsoft uses a combination of unnecessary file format changes and intentional discontinuation of production in order to force consumers to chase a "moving target" of file compatibility with newer, slower, less-reliable versions of MS products. To top it off, most (if not all) Microsoft products are doomed to failures, glitches, and unpredictable actions as a result of the failure of MS developers to design Year2000 compliance into their products. Microsoft products are designed to become obsolete, despite the very real capacity of software to have an indefinite life span.

Where does OS/2 Warp fit into this picture? IBM does not compete on price; they compete on quality. How can OS/2 benefit the consumer, then, if it does not compete on the basis of lower cost than Windows?

OS/2 can benefit the consumer by avoiding the very defects listed above. Using OS/2 does not exclude a PC user from using a lesser operating system such as Windows, since Boot Manager and other boot loaders are available. IBM does not force PC makers to load "OS/2 only" the way Microsoft does with Windows. OS/2 does not have constant, unnecessary file format and API changes the way MS operating systems and applications do. This protects the PC buyers' investments and keeps them off the MS treadmill of constant, expensive change -- running full speed just to stay in one place. Real innovation can be added to OS/2 because of its modularity, unlike Microsoft's top-heavy, bloated code. OS/2 is practically guaranteed Y2K-ready by IBM, where as Windows is best described as "Y2K-challenged." IBM does not discontinue availability of an OS/2 version until a real and significant shift in its user base has already occurred; that is, IBM responds to consumer choice instead of forcing it. And of course the consumer's personal time is valuable. OS/2's time-saving features such as greater reliability and superior background printing and Internet file transfer save the consumer this valuable, irreplaceable resource.

Yet there is one more way in which OS/2 can be a cost saver for the typical PC consumer. Since Microsoft plans to discontinue its DOS-based Windows operating systems and force the marketplace toward the even slower, more-bloated Windows2000 line of products, the hardware requirements of Windows will soon far outstrip the more modest requirements of OS/2 Warp. Offering the consumer a Warp upgrade for their older PC will soon be a far less expensive option than having them throw out their machine and start over. Even PC upgrade requirements for Windows2000 will be far higher than for OS/2 version 4. This means an immediate, signficant, and most importantly VISIBLE cost savings for the PC consumer who wisely says "NO" to Microsoft's next round of wallet-on-a-string. Unlike the hardware situation of five years ago, saying "YES" to OS/2 Warp is soon to be a very smart, money-saving event.

All things considered, Microsoft has been a poor steward of the power and influence they have wielded over the PC marketplace. Willful obsolescence, reduced product quality, and artificially inflated PC costs are the price that the consumer has had to pay for almost an entire decade. It is time for Microsoft to begin atoning for its woeful rule of incompetence, terror, and the cavalier disregard for the best interests of consumers. Offering OS/2 gives the PC user a taste of true "Greatness."

Most recent revision: July 25, 1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.