Cover V07, I04


Editor's Forum

The impact of the Web on current computing technology is both obvious and discussed all too frequently. Given this month's theme, yet another treatise on the Web's explosive growth and social, business and economic potential is a tempting way to save editorial time; however, I hope a different, albeit related, topic for the April Forum will be more worthy of your time. That topic is the essence of two pending legal actions that will have significant effect on how we build, administer, and utilize the Web as a conduit to information and applications. The law suits to which I refer are the actions brought against Microsoft by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Sun Microsystems.

Each of these law suits is based on a different set of legal issues: Microsoft's allegedly monopolistic practices with respect to its Web browser on one hand, and the company's alleged breach of its Java license on the other. Both cases have reasonable legal arguments and supporters on both sides of the fence. The legal arguments will likely be brandished back and forth in the courts in a minutia-oriented manner that is common for attorneys - battling over the meaning of a preposition here or a comma there, while largely ignoring the underlying intent of agreements in both cases. Some might suggest that the central issue in both of these cases is whether Microsoft should be allowed to own yet another segment of the computer industry, this time the Web.

The action brought by the DOJ asserts, in essence, that Microsoft crossed the line between being fiercely competitive and abusively monopolistic when it tied the installation of its Windows 95 operating system to its browser, Internet Explorer. Sun, meanwhile, argues that Microsoft violated its Java license by not including key portions of the language that would keep the Java platform open and compatible with applications written in non-Microsoft implementations of the language. Again, there are reasonable pro and con arguments in both of these cases - letter-of-the-law arguments the settlement of which the courts were designed for. In both instances, however, there is also an issue of underlying intent. There is also a growing sentiment that Microsoft is twisting the definition of its intent to its own purpose, and doing so with considerable arrogance. The perception of Microsoft's attitude was artfully expressed in a satyrical cartoon by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Constitution. The cartoon depicts a Titanic-sized luxury liner labeled "Microsoft" approaching an iceberg labeled "U.S. Govt." The caption: "Crew, Captain Gates. We're approaching an iceberg. On three, drop pants and moon it ..."

While the target of the Luckovich cartoon is obvious, there is also a lesson there for the rest of us, CEOs and system administrators alike. People around the world tolerate, or even admire, the strong personalities of individuals with conviction, and there is more than one strong personality in the computer industry. The appearance of self-serving arrogance, however, is another matter. Should we, as system administrators, care which browser visitors to our Web sites use? No. Should we tune our systems so that only browsers resident on open, standards-based UNIX clients can access our sites? Similarly, no. To do so, while consistent with the precise definition of the advocacy of openness, would be arrogant, unproductive, and counter to the intent of open standards.

Sincerely yours,
Ralph Barker