My Feb. 23 column, which argued that consumers would benefit if Microsoft Corp. is allowed to integrate a Web browser into Windows, attracted a lot of comment from readers. Most of the messages took issue with me, and many of them made me think.
I still believe that an integrated browser is a good idea because, among other things, it makes access to the Internet easier. I even think that the common standard created by the near-monopoly of Microsoft's operating system benefits consumers by forming the basic foundation for software designers. But readers repeatedly raised one important point: Without competitors breathing down its neck, what gives Microsoft an incentive to create the best possible software?
ERRATIC. Microsoft's argument, made in recent Senate testimony by Chairman William H. Gates III, is that dominance in the high-tech business is fleeting. Perhaps the Sun Microsystems Inc.-IBM collaboration on Java software, which is designed to function on all sorts of computers, will make operating systems irrelevant. Or maybe Apple Computer Inc.'s upcoming Rhapsody OS will sweep the market. But while waiting for a threat to Microsoft's reign, consumer wariness is justified.
A concrete example comes from reader Mark Hazell of Halifax, N.S. He needs to read documents posted to the Web in many formats, including Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect, the chief rival to Microsoft's Word. Although a distant second in word processing, WordPerfect is widely used for legal documents, including many in the Justice Dept.'s online archive for the U.S. v. Microsoft antitrust case.
Word can read WordPerfect files. If you've told Windows to use Word to open WordPerfect documents, then when you click on a link on a Web page, your computer should launch Word and open the file. Hazell's experience was quite different, and so was mine. When I clicked on the link in Internet Explorer, the browser asked what program to use to open the file. Word then fired up but announced that it couldn't open the WordPerfect file. Netscape Navigator 4.0, by contrast, launched Word and opened the file with no trouble. After a week of phone conversations and E-mail exchanges, Microsoft traced the problem to bad information in the registry database that Windows uses to store information about your computer.
Now, this isn't an earthshaking problem. The fix, once found, was relatively simple. And you could always work around the glitch by saving the WordPerfect file to your hard disk and opening it from within Word. But an ordinary customer has little hope of getting as much help as a journalist working on a story. Worse, Microsoft's online help has frequently been unusable because of erratic performance at its Web site, support.microsoft.com. The company says it is in the process of upgrading the site to improve responsiveness.
Unfortunately, Windows annoyances are far from rare. Mysterious crashes and mystifying error messages, such as the dread and almost unfixable "Windows Protection Error," are far too common. For example, nearly every time I install a printer or other device, Windows stops partway through the process and informs me that it cannot find some file that it needs. Almost invariably, the file is on the installation disk the computer has been reading. Again, I can work around the problem, but it has persisted through two updates of Windows 95 and remains in the test version of Windows 98.
HIGHER STANDARD. These little glitches add up to a big blind spot. Software may be the only business where companies routinely ship products with known defects, and Microsoft is no worse than many others. But I believe its position in the market gives it a special responsibility. If I don't like CyberMedia Inc.'s UnInstaller utility, I can use Quarterdeck Corp.'s CleanSweep instead. Even though Microsoft Office has most of the application suite market, I can switch to Lotus SmartSuite or WordPerfect Suite. But in operating systems, especially for individuals, the choice is Windows or nothing.
So what is to be done? It's up to Microsoft to step up to the plate, since the government can neither create competition nor regulate quality. The company can produce high-quality software. Windows NT is sold as an operating system for essential business functions and, not incidentally, faces real competition from Unix. This is one reason it is much more reliable than Win95. NT versions are tested more rigorously before release, and "hot fixes" are quickly made available as bugs are found.
Microsoft should be able to do as well for consumers as it does for business network customers. We have no choice but to use Microsoft to get where we want to go. They should make it a better trip.