Silicon Alley entrepreneurs have a great defender in New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco, whether they want one or not. Vacco, who is leading the 20-state (and the District of Columbia) antitrust suit against Microsoft and its “bundling” practices, decided to get involved in the case because “so many New Yorkers might be affected by this alleged monopoly,” says Mollie M. Conkey, a spokeswoman for Vacco. “It’s about the consumers and the guys in the garage who are playing on laptops who can’t compete….We have a nascent and burgeoning industry here.”
Yet despite Vacco’s stalwart intentions to come to their aid, local developers–many of whom are way beyond the “two guys in a garage” metaphor–can seem dismissive and downright hostile about his case. “I think the states and the federal government are out of line,” says Jeff Dachis, CEO of design firm Razorfish. “Companies are just bitching and moaning for not earning the same margins that Microsoft is.” (Razorfish’s own margins are currently exploding–the company acquired two design firms last week.) Dachis, who doesn’t use “or like” Microsoft products, believes the company has “the right to [bundle its products]–I’m all for free markets.” Tristan Louis, editor of the local industry e-zine Net Hype (tnl.net/nethype), agrees.”The state’s case is totally irrational–it’s the theater of the absurd.”
The laissez-faire consensus comes partly from an industry-wide spirit of libertarianism, but it’s certainly eased by the fact that Alley companies stand to gain regardless of who wins the suit. As the Net becomes woven more deeply into the desktop, thousands of companies could start offering desktop interfaces–the architecture and decoration of your screen–that would compete with Windows for screen space. And that, says Louis, “will make Microsoft’s life a whole heck of a lot more difficult.”
Vacco and the other attorneys general want to force Microsoft to “untie” its Internet Explorer browser from the Windows 98 operating system to include other browsers like Netscape. Microsoft’s operating system currently runs on 90 per cent of computers, and the company also dominates the market for many other software applications, including word-processing programs. (Vacco’s press office, however, uses the competing word-processing program WordPerfect by Corel; when I read the federal complaint in Microsoft Word on my Mac, all I got was gibberish.) But whether Microsoft or the states prove their case, the Net stands to prevail, as components like Windows 98’s “Active Desktop”–which lets Net content pour easily into windows–become central parts of our computers,ceding the desktop to diverse Net interfaces.
Many developers believe that the Net is the epicenter of “innovation”–which is precisely the term Bill Gates invokes in his own defense. The advances and experiments of small-time developers on the Net outstrip the improvements to the Windows operating system, says Steven Johnson, editor of the New York–based culture and technology e-zine Feed (feedmag.com, where, in the interest of full disclosure, I confess I also work) and author of Interface Culture. “Take a look at the basic look and feel of a Web site today and a Web site in 1995–it’s a completely different experience,” he says. “Then compare the basic file navigation of Windows 98 to Windows 95. There are some changes, but there haven’t been many breakthroughs–that signals that people who are capable and savvy enough to come up with new ideas are thinking about the Web and not [proprietary systems like] Windows,because they know their work will survive” on the Net’s open market.
These same designers are hedging into Microsoft territory by moving from creating cosmetic interfaces to writing executable programs that reside on the Net, says Marc Tinkler, creative director of Alley Web firm Plumb Design. “With drag-and-drop functions, Dynamic HTML, and Java, Web sites are starting to look a lot like applications,” he says. His company’s own Thinkmap technology (thinkmap.com) is a prime example. Written in Java (which can run on all operating systems), Thinkmap creates a visual bundle of information, culled from data-bases, that can be reoriented, adjusted, and moved through with trees of concepts and themes. It’s currently used to great effect in the Smithsonian’s “Revealing Things” exhibition (si.edu/revealingthings/) and Plumb’s Visual Thesaurus (plumbdesign.com/thesaurus), where strong associations intensify in color and weak ones fade out. Though the application is clearly in its early stages, Thinkmap provides a glimpse at a potential Web-based alternative to existing database software programs like Microsoft Access.
While Vacco, the states, and Silicon Valley executives pressure Microsoft to open up its Windows, Alley companies may have little at risk from the megalith’s monopoly practices in the short term. AsTinkler says, “we don’t align ourselves with Microsoft or anti-Microsoft. The fact is we’ll use whatever is necessary in order to make something work.”
Signal and Noise