It has been over 7 years since Judge Jackson issued his order for Microsoft to be broken up into an applications and a operating system business. Due to various complications, that never came to pass. But what if it had? What would the computer world look like today?
The break-up idea was designed to force Microsoft to develop applications that would run on platforms other than Windows. In the process, Windows would have to compete more aggressively to convince consumers and businesses that it was the operating system of choice. This competition might have taken a little time to start but within a few years, we would likely have seen some opening up of the platform.
Now it’s a mugs game to speculate on what all this would have meant but let me give it a go. First, let’s consider the operating system market. Windows competes with Apple’s OS X and Linux. The applications part of Microsoft would have moved more rapidly to universalise its applications for those systems; boosting their share of the market. But it would also have moved more rapidly to be system independent — say for a browser-based suite. Google may not have been first to that market. All this adds up to healthy prospects for the applications business of Microsoft; perhaps a better position than they currently enjoy there.
But that boost to other operating systems may not have lasted long. They enjoy the position they do today because of the weakness of Windows. If Windows was forced to become more stable, innovative and complete they would face much more competition. Indeed, one could imagine that the prospects for an open source operating system such as Linux may be dim today.
What of the applications market? Well, now Microsoft would also have to make its operating system easier for developers to write for it. That would have allowed entry there and lower the price of Microsoft applications such as office and also its business software too. So we would have better quality and a greater variety of applications. What is more, incentives to build market share would have improved inter-operability and so users could switch between application more easily.
In the new world, it seems to me that the big loser from all this would have been Apple — facing a rival that wasn’t driving customers away through complacency — and the big winner would be Intel — boosting all of its sales because software issues were being resolved more readily. And for consumers, apart from some lower prices, at least for software, and some reduced overall frustrations, would much have really changed? I don’t know but as I contemplate my laptop woes this week, I still long for the opportunity to have found out.