U.S. 1, Microsoft 0

WHILE THE NASDAQ responded by falling more than 600 points, most people here just shrugged at the defeat of Microsoft on anti-trust charges. Everyone knows Microsoft has worked hard to create their monopoly, and everyone knows that the decision–like the fines the government levies against corporate polluters–won’t put even the littlest dent in Bill Gates’s wallet.

Forget the flap over their packaging of their Internet Explorer unfairly edging rival Netscape out of competition for web browsers; while it’s the salient point in the court proceedings (and will certainly result in some gaudy one-time remuneration figure), it’s merely a symptom of Microsoft’s already well-documented business practices over the past twenty years.  And those business practices were as much admired as decried, and made Microsoft what they are today.

Basically, Microsoft owns the software market in the United States. Their consumer products–not just the corporation itself–have instant name recognition (Windows, Word, Excel, etc.) in a fledgling marketplace awash in sound-alikes.  When people turn on their personal computers, most likely they no longer even notice the flaglike Windows logo.

For all its technical glitches and slipped schedules, Windows is reliable enough for normal home use, and people do rely on it.  While twenty years ago only a few people owned home computers, at this point middle class Americans take them–and their Internet access–for granted.

The sudden technological jump and its attendant shift in everyday behavior hasn’t baffled Americans in the least; as with the introduction of telephone service or the advent of television, we’ve welcomed the new opportunities enthusiastically, both as a breakthrough in communications and the possible heart of a new economy.  But this doesn’t mean we understand the technology or can weigh the contributions of those few who are the moving forces behind it.

Industrial America rested on the shoulders of steel and railroad tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and their bankers, Charles Schwab and J.P. Morgan.  Their hard-won monopolies spurred both the growth of our cities and the passage of the very legislation that Microsoft faces.  The skyscrapers and bridges, much of the basic infrastructure of early 20th century America is a by-product of their private empire-building.

Yet in most American histories written in the last half century, these men are presented as the Robber Barons, growing hideously rich at the expense of the underpaid and unprotected worker.  Later in life, Andrew Carnegie gave away a fair share of his millions, becoming the most notable philanthropist of his time (an image Gates hopes to propogate, giving money for schools and libraries), yet he would never shake the ugliness of his henchman Henry Frick trying to crush the Homestead Strike with a private army of Pinkerton guards.  In Pittsburgh, a city full of buildings and institutions with his name on them, he remains a hated man.

Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, and as such, Americans hate him. On principle.  And because he’s a nerd, about as hip as Al Gore.  He may be smarter than us, yes, and more ruthless, surely, but there’s no way he should be making that kind of money while we work our butts off for peanuts and shitty health care plans.  Look at the size of that house he built, and obviously he bought himself a wife.  Christ, imagine their kids?  Poor things.

We hate Gates and we hate Microsoft not, like Carnegie, because they mistreat their workers, but because they’re winners.  They played dirty (though no dirtier than other businesses, we figure) and so we can feel morally superior, when in reality we just wanted to see them lose for once.

But, like Carnegie’s steel surrounding us, invisible under tons of concrete, we rarely note how much of our virtual world rests on Microsoft. The paradox is that the true influence these men have had on our culture is in a way a by-product, a side-effect of their ambition.  Which meant more to them, the new world or their own ascendency?  We hate them for the latter and take the former for granted, as if the two weren’t inextricably linked.

The decision changes nothing of importance.  The courts can’t turn back the past, and the software wars are pretty much over anyway. Microsoft won.  We don’t have to like it, we just have to live with it.

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