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Silicon Valley Linux User Group: Editorials

[picture of Ian Kluft]

What Should the DoJ Do If It Wins

by Ian Kluft, SVLUG Member
February 20, 1999
San Jose, California

CNN and IDG brought up the question in their article, "What if Microsoft loses the antitrust case?" It points out that antitrust cases are often so hard-fought that the actual antitrust remedies are an afterthought. The DoJ's antitrust case against Microsoft is no exception, and they're apparently only now deciding what to propose if they win.

However, many of us in the Linux community have been faced with this problem for years. We'd like to bring some ideas into the open.

Self-Restraint Needed

Before we get into the specific remedies, lets consider some self-restraint first. The monopoly power exercised by Microsoft has been a sort of "common enemy", and a galvanizing factor in the Linux community. Some people undoubtedly will prefer a "take as much as we can get" approach.

But, it has to be strong enough to withstand the inevitable appeals Microsoft is likely to make against any unfavorable decision. So, it must not go beyond enforcing US antitrust law and observing constitutional rights of Microsoft's rivals, because you know Microsoft can challenge anything they perceive as infringing their own rights -- and the courts would be correct to strike down anything that is unconstitutional or illegal, regardless of whom it favors.

So, we must all accept that even after a fair decision, many competitive issues will still be settled in the market, preferably, many more than are possible in the market today.

Suggestions for Antitrust Remedies

US antitrust laws may compel a monopoly to share with rivals information about a facility it controls, if it is considered "essential." (See the "Essential Facility Doctrine" at Harvard Law School's "Antitrust Summary".) Software developers have encountered great difficulty in overcoming unpublished or frequently-changing interfaces in Microsoft's DOS and Windows operating systems. These have had the ongoing effect of favoring Microsoft's applications, Web browser, and other software.

In order to break Microsoft's monopoly hold on the operating system, it needs to be compelled to publish (openly without requiring a nondisclosure agreement) the following types of interfaces for current and future revisions of its operating systems:

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)
all the programming functions and data structures that provide access to operating system services and hardware drivers. (Adequate publication consists of complete documentation.)
File Formats
the structures and organization of files read and written by the operating system. For example, configuration, executable programs, libraries, etc. (Adequate publication consists of complete documentation.)
Wire Protocols
the networking and interprocess-communication protocols used to access and administer operating system functions. (Adequate publication consists of complete documentation and/or source code for a reference implementation.)

For the purposes of these remedies, anything bundled with the operating system or required to run it would be considered part of the operating system. Any of these operating system interfaces that is available to application developers within Microsoft should also be published before release. The public availability of these specifications makes the difference between an open system and a closed system.

This is not as strong an antitrust remedy as actually forcing Microsoft to license its operating system source code, but this should be more resistant to an appeal in court. It holds closest to the Essential Facility Doctrine of US antitrust law, by requiring only the minimum information necessary for a rival to enter the market.

Opening these three kinds of interfaces are sufficient to allow, for example, Corel's WordPerfect to keep up with operating system features available to Microsoft's Word.

It would also allow Linux and FreeBSD to run Windows programs such as Microsoft's Word or Intuit's Quicken. This has been an elusive goal of the WINE (Windows Emulation) project for over four years, because the Windows interfaces keep changing, leaving the developers reverse engineering software at a revision behind the current releases.

Only one open source project has been successful in catching up with even one of these interfaces. Through aggressive and ongoing reverse-engineering efforts, Samba now uses the same networking protocols as Windows NT server, allowing Linux servers to offer network file and print services to Windows 95/98 client machines more reliably than does NT itself. History has shown that Microsoft's likely response will be to change the protocols on the clients and servers to introduce new undocumented incompatibilities, which will take some time to catch up with again.

This proposal is meant to be a minimum antitrust remedy in the Internet age. However, there may be reasons we haven't considered that lead to other remedies, which are also appropriate in addition to these. Hopefully, this has enough balance to make its way into the final decision when (not if) the DoJ wins its antitrust case against Microsoft.

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