Gates at Appomattox: Why the US Surrendered

by Eben Moglen

It was hardly a surprise. George W. Bush told us during the campaign that he thought United States v. Microsoft shouldn't have been brought in the first place; Al Gore, who could hardly say that, limited himself to making a campaign appearance at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters. But what was surprising about the announcement that the Justice Department would not pursue the breakup of Microsoft was that the decision had become so easy for the politicians who really made it. The coalition of "campaign contributors" that had stiffened the Clinton Administration's spine against Microsoft in the first place had changed sides.

The most important are Microsoft's erstwhile enemies, the hardware manufacturers - Intel, HP, Compaq and the rest of the PC-makers, who, although still determined to drive down the share of any new PC's price paid to Microsoft, are very temporarily in its corner. They are all, without exception, in very serious trouble. In the United States, PCs are sold to corporations or to consumers, at Christmastime. But US business has all the computers it needs, and more. Last Christmas was a disaster for the hardware makers, and with layoffs up, recession looming and Americans' credit card debt at an all-time high, this one looks just as bad. Desktop PCs are already selling at fire-sale prices, and if this winter's products don't move, some Very Big People will fail. The announcement that HP will use "$25 billion" of grossly overpriced HP stock to buy an almost worthless Compaq will save Carly Fiorina's job for a while (a religious doctrine of US capitalism says you can't fire a CEO - even one who has missed three consecutive quarters of earnings projections - while she's in the middle of this big a deal), but although the merged company will probably soon fire twice the 15,000 workers it has already said will go, no one but Bill Gates can save HP/Compaq and the others.

He can do this by releasing a new operating system even more bloated, slow and enormous than his current excrescences, thus requiring a general round of expensive and pointless consumer hardware upgrading - pointless for the consumers, that is, but not for the manufacturers, whose interests for the next few months lie in supporting Gates. Bush, who lost California big time in 2000, won't carry it next time either, but he certainly isn't going to let northern California's biggest bribes all go to the other side.Or southern California's either. Hollywood is now Gates's staunchest and most loyal ally - unlike the hardware manufacturers, even in better economic times the content moguls have nowhere else to go. There are now two kinds of computers in the world: Windows computers, which their users cannot technically understand or modify, and free software computers (usually inaccurately called "Linux" computers), running the enormous body of software made by the best programmers on earth and given to everyone to use freely, modify and redistribute. Windows XP has been designed to help the movie and music businesses by degrading the quality of the MP3 music-file format that currently fuels the world's music-sharing systems like Napster [see Moglen, "Liberation Musicology," March 12]. These systems allow users, who need pay nothing, to exchange music with anyone else in the world - thus giving the five companies that control the world's popular music the heebie-jeebies. Windows XP also contains facilities that might soon allow the movie and television companies to control all video distributed through the web, or at least to hobble any serious competition they might meet there. In the world of "convergence," where what we have seen as separate media (radio, television, movies, recorded music, books, magazines, newspapers, video games) are all "bitstreams" delivered to digital devices, the oligarchs of culture and the monopolist of software are discovering that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Can we learn anything here about the general antitrust policy of the remarkably pro-corporate Bush Administration? Only that when corporate America was divided on what to do with Microsoft, there was room to care about competition. When all corporate players agree - which is the moment when antitrust law should be most important - it has the least influence on this Administration. What's next in the history of United States v. Microsoft? Much sterile legal maneuvering, leading to a settlement that will leave Gates's empire unchained and undiminished. But only temporarily. The best software in the world continues to be free. Free as in free speech: free to use, free to copy, free to modify. As users learn what free software can do, manufacturers won't need Gates anymore. If you're a capitalist and you have the very best goods, and they're free, you don't have to proselytize - you just have to wait. Thanks to the venality of politics in America, Microsoft is riding high right now, but it is headed for the boneyard after all.