Recently, in a column on the editorial pages of the New York Times , Lawrence White, former chief economist at the antitrust division of the Department of Justice, suggested a possible solution to the impasse between the federal government and Microsoft Corp.
His solution: instead of breaking the company up or imposing a rigid set of guidelines to govern its behavior, the DOJ should charge Microsoft with a one-time $10 billion fine. And Microsoft should accept it. Don't feel sorry for Microsoft. After the payment, he points out, it would still have $10 billion in liquid assets.
While he points out the advantages to all sides, he does not address what to do with the money. Sharing it amongst all taxpayers or even amongst all users of Microsoft products is pointless. Leaving it up to Congress to decide how, to whom, or to what the money should go does not sound attractive.
In the unlikely event that his proposal is seriously considered, I have a suggestion for what to do with the money: fund a foundation devoted to building a secure, safe, and reliable infrastructure for the emerging “information superhighway” and all the computing devices that “travel” on it. This would also include the virtual concrete of which it is made, the computers, the controller equivalents of on and off ramps, the highways themselves, the bridges and the interchanges, and finally, the rules and regulations by which traffic is controlled.
I admit there are associations, engineering societies, and consumer groups that already address such issues. But a nonprofit organization with $10 billion in resources is the only entity that could push back when any large corporation, or combination of companies, shoves. Specifically, there are any number of things such an independent foundation could do right away.
First, it could create independent test suites to test software for compatibility with standards defined by the industry, trade associations, or professional engineering societies. For a company whose software and application programming interfaces have become a de facto standard, the availability of such independent test suites would provide an additional level of surety that the software does indeed pass the compatibility tests. Also, the company that originated the standard would be subject to the same set of test suites. The results of such testing would make average users more confident in new and unfamiliar technology.
It would also prevent problems such as those that occur with software or hardware branded with a Windows logo to indicate compatibility. When one product I was evaluating caused Windows to crash, the excuse I got was that while the company that built it followed the API exactly, Microsoft did not. Arbitrarily, without telling any one, the company was following a procedure that violated its own standards. I don't know if this is true or not, or whether I was just being given excuses. But I have been told this often enough that I don't entirely doubt it.
This Windows/Microsoft-inspired skepticism has spread to my view of other software environments. For example, the only compatibility test suites for Java applications and virtual machines accepted by Sun are its own. But what is to prevent the same thing that appears to have occurred with Windows?
There have been efforts to develop independent test suites for Java virtual machines, such as Mauve (out of the open-source movement). But Sun has declined to participate. Several international professional societies have also tried to work with Sun to develop a common standard and environment within which changes, improvements, and modifications could be made. Sun has said no, thank you.
A second thing such an organization could do would be to sponsor an effort to determine the usability and safety of net-centric software and hardware aimed at the consumer, similar to what Consumer Reports and Underwriter's Labs do, or do it in concert with these groups.
Third, an independent organization–with muscle–could aid professional societies to support more formalized software development and testing techniques, and develop ways to certify and license electronic engineers and computer scientists who work on building the superhighway.
Fourth, it could fund training of information age workers with generous scholarships to get a full four-year education in all aspects of computer design and engineering. These should offer enough financial incentives to prevent students with two or three years of programming experience in college from leaving early to take lucrative, but ultimately dead-end, jobs in industry. One of the complaints I often get from executives at embedded companies is that the talent they are getting is one-dimensional. They drop out of college after they have learned just enough Java, C, or C++ to get a programming job, but do not have the technical depth of knowledge to do anything else without substantial on-the-job training.
Fifth, it could fund a major research effort into the nature of the unruly, still largely unreliable beasts we call the Internet and World Wide Web. There is a lot we do not know about computing in a global distributed environment. Failures of seemingly isolated nodes can, for some reason, result in widespread network outages and unpredictable operation. Even with redundant network paths, communications glitches can isolate some information neighborhoods from the others. Information consistency and version consistency are difficult enough in a traditional distributed computing environment, let alone one with the global reach of the Internet and World Wide Web. Identification, authentication, and authorization of individual users and organizations are proving difficult to control. And the larger the World Wide Web gets, the more difficult it will be to identify, analyze, and solve network crashes and come up with appropriate recovery strategies.
Using the $10 billion fine from the court case for such a foundation would be a win-win deal for participants on all sides. For the Republicans, who are falling all over themselves seeking favor with Bill Gates and Microsoft, it would give them a graceful way out of a ticklish political problem. For Microsoft, the fact that $10 billion of its surplus earnings went to accomplish such laudable goals would go a long way to removing the resentment and anger current users of its software have about the years of misery its software has caused.
For Bill Gates, despite the fact that it would all be accomplished independently of him and as a result of his illegal actions, with the right “spin doctors” in charge, it would make him the “Hero of the Internet” for all time. And it would erase, or at least balance out, the view amongst those who were present at the creation of personal computer that he was less the father of the PC and more the relative outside the hospital room who grabbed the baby, ran away and raised it as his own.
But why a $10 billion foundation? Well, these days, with Republicans and Libertarians opposing or ridiculing the extension of government power, or more accurately, government responsibility, it would be the only option.
But would it be responsive to the input of ordinary citizens and organizations? Well, the only way to ensure that all of us have a say in this and not just the major corporations is for all of us to get involved. The only organizations remotely like the one we would need are the informal groups that run the Internet, among them the Internet Engineering Task Force–a true democracy in which everyone has a say and the majority rules. But the IETF and other Internet governing bodies evolved in blessed isolation from the commercial world and it is not likely we could deliberately and consciously create anything similar.
The most tried-and-true method for doing what is necessary on this kind of scale is through the federal government. Big government is not entirely evil, or more accurately, it is only as evil as we allow it to become, especially in our representative democracy. The government is “we, the people” after all. And it is not any more or less competent, or evil, than those of us who work for corporations.
In addition to jump-starting the beginnings of the Internet, it was the federal government that sponsored the building of the national highway system, at the instigation of a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, by the way. It set the standards for the materials, the engineering specifications, and the engineers.
If it worked for the federal highway system, why not for the “information superhighway,” which is on its way to becoming just as integral to our economy?
What a load of old tosh!!!
$10Bn!!!! I can think of a million better ways to use that money if I thought it was good to extract that much out of “the” company that basically put the computing market on the map!!!
As far as I am concerned Bill's a good old capitalist and so long live they.
Ian Anthony Moss