Why Microsoft vs Mankind still matters

The Penguin is missing, while Apple's gone to Hollywood

You can't make somebody compete with Microsoft, if they don't want to

This situation raises some of the most awkward questions of all for public agencies: and these are really questions of political economy - how do states deal with a monopoly?

Is having $70bn sucked out of the global economy each year a price worth paying? Once India and China develop further, that figure will be closer to $200bn. What do we get for this, exactly?

Uniformity, certainly: everywhere you go, there's Windows - with the same security holes all over the world. And stability, too: a company earning $200bn a year isn't going to go out of business overnight.

But it's still an extraordinary sum of money. With 80 per cent profit margins, Microsoft must be busy inventing some incredible stuff: cold fusion can't be far away, you'd think.

Alas, even the most innovative company in the world, with a guaranteed income of $70bn per year, isn't going to be inclined to take too many risks. And Microsoft has "innovated" like a heavy sleeper, only momentarily waking up. Microsoft gets busy only when it has to - when it perceives some immediate competition. Netscape provoked a brief spurt of action at Redmond, RIM obliged Microsoft to incorporate push email into Exchange server - and there was a spurtlet when FireFox made a splash three years ago.

Otherwise, it's been heavy snoring all the way.

Quite apart from the fact that the EU ruling addresses desktop computing only tangentially, there's a profound problem in the philosophical approach of regulators. The EU sees its role as addressing market failure, with the presumption that once tweaked, competition will flood into the market.

Politicians - and the regulators they appoint - have yet to envisage a situation where competitors can't, or don't want to compete. Today, Microsoft is the textbook "natural monopoly" - but does anyone have the will to call it what it is?

Some people argue that we live in an era when all the big political ideas have failed: when "politics is over". In fact, "leaving it to the market" is the only new idea politicians have come up with in the past 25 years. If that's the case, then you see the problem. A situation where the market has failed presents them with a "divide by zero" error.

While the EU has been lauded this week for taking a stand against a global corporation, it's really hard to see politicians or regulators anywhere progressing to the next step - and setting out to create a new framework for dealing with what is in effect a global, private computing levy.

Bill Gates promises politicians that not only will he "take care of computing", but he'll take care of the foreign aid budget, too. And who but a grump could object to that?

I can see why Benji Cohen prefers a Web 2.0 fantasy to the reality: the answers are too hard to think about. ®

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