Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Dangerous Jargon

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, December 29, 1998 --  

The flurry of speculation surrounding the acquisition of Netscape Communications by America Online and its new strategic alliance with Sun Microsystems has revived the decade-old debate about the virtue of "open systems."

The meaning behind this industry term varies immensely, depending on whom you talk to. Everybody seems to agree that open systems are a good thing -- it's hard to argue against freedom of information in an industry that relies upon it at many levels as the basis for future growth. The disagreement is clouded by inane jargon, but is of tremendous importance to both the high-tech industry and the future of the world economy. Failure to resolve this debate rationally could lead to a U.S. government breakup of Microsoft followed by disastrous regulatory shock waves in the high-tech economy.

At its core, an open system is software whose inputs and outputs are clearly defined -- without cost to anyone -- in order to allow others to build additional software that reliably interacts with it. This definition is so broad that even Microsoft can agree. Others rightfully argue that Microsoft's Windows operating systems don't meet even this limited definition of open systems. Often, critical subtleties of its interfaces are poorly documented at best, and kept secret at worst, in order to give Microsoft's homemade products the advantage over competitors when interacting with its Windows operating systems.

The more zealous promoters of open systems -- Netscape, Sun, and academics -- insist that a system isn't really open unless its "source code" (blueprints required to build software from scratch) is made public. In addition, they argue that an international board of academics and financially disinterested corporate representatives should set standards for future revisions.

The key differences between the to definitions is (a) who controls the source code and (b) who sets new standards. In the case of Microsoft, they insist on performing both functions as a legitimate business enterprise. The anti-Microsoft coalition is demanding an end to Microsoft's control of the Windows operating systems. They quote all kinds of theories as to why their model for the industry will lead to the promised land, while Microsoft's will lead to the doom of monopolism. Microsoft's critics are both terribly disingenuous and terribly wrong.

Both Netscape and Sun were latecomers to the strict dogma of open systems. They pursued proprietary riches for as long as they could before being completely annihilated by Microsoft's competition.* Once their proprietary software could no longer make money, they magically changed their religion to embrace the gospel of open systems.

The same change of faith will one day reach Microsoft -- even without the intervention of the U.S. government. As Sun and Netscape have shown, the only difference between their definition of open systems and Microsoft's is profitability. Once Microsoft's Windows operating systems cease to be the cash cow that drives their growth, the once valuable source code and standards will be divested to the public.

It may seem unimaginable now that Microsoft's record-selling operating systems could one day be without value. But step back for a minute and look at the big picture of the computer industry. No computer operating system has ever maintained its dominance for more than a human generation. No computer corporation has maintained its dominance for anything close to that. Software that was highly-valued 20 years ago is now given away for free -- blueprints included. To think that Microsoft's operating systems are somehow different than the rest is absurd -- just try and find an open systems believer who thinks Windows is a good, mature, and stable product.

So what if Windows isn't a true open system? One day it will be. The only difference between now and later is foot-dragging and continued standards control by the software behemoth. That may be irritating to developers, but hardly worth a government breakup. As for the overblown rhetoric from Sun and Netscape, just remember that though their words seem like high ideals, they have a distinctive scent of sour grapes.

* Netscape and Sun continue to sell proprietary systems in areas not completely dominated by Microsoft.