Beware the thin man, Caesar warned Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s
immortal play, “Julius Caesar.” He should have said beware the short
Amidst the aftermath of the Justice Department’s nearly fulfilled
fetish for whittling the Ginsu knives of government at Microsoft —
earning Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s slice-and-dice recommendation to
divide the company asunder — emerges the diminutive Robert Reich, U.S.
secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997 and current professor of social and
economic policy at Brandeis University.
Upon which side of the debate do Reich’s sympathies lie? In true
Napoleon-complex fashion, the short guy wants to see the giant
corporation beaten down to something smaller — for all the noblest
reasons, of course.
“At first glance, the Microsoft breakup order last week looks like a
throwback to an earlier era,” begins Reich in a
column for Sunday’s
Washington Post, suggesting that while the MS trust bust understandably looked like “Washington imposing the heaviest of heavy hands, slicing up the very icon of American technological prowess,” in reality Judge Jackson’s June 7 ruling was a good thing for friends, Romans, and countrymen the nation over.
When the gavel came down, Jackson decided that Microsoft should keep its operating systems for PCs, handhelds, TV boxes, and other assorted doodads and technobobbles. However, to develop its other software and Web applications — Internet Explorer, Outlook, BackOffice and the Microsoft Network to name a few — the judge said the company would have to create a new firm.
From his column, Reich is rosy with glee over the decision. Rather than a simple case of government ham-fisting a private company, Reich sees a glorious future emerging out of Janet Reno and Joel Klein’s antitrust jihad:
… I think the Microsoft case can be better understood as a harbinger of a new kind of role for government in the emerging “new economy” — even if the company wins on appeal and escapes a breakup. Rather than regulating particular markets, government will be setting the contours of property rights as they apply to new ideas, and thus defining the new economy.
Defining the new economy? That’s what I’ve always wanted.
From the same administration whose fearless leader can’t muster the ability to define the meaning of the word “is,” comes the desire to define an entire economy.
With prices for most hardware and software falling like bricks, Reich is smart enough to acknowledge that the Justice Department didn’t sharpen its battleaxe over consumer costs. So, given that, just how is “economy” going to be defined in Uncle Sam’s dictionary? By Reich’s account, its nearest synonym will be “innovation.”
“Ideally,” writes Reich, “the boundary will give the first company a strong incentive to continue improving Windows and the second one a strong interest in developing a lot of” — get this — “cool applications.” Accordingly, this tactic should create “more opportunities for other software developers to make a lot of money doing their own things. The hoped-for consequence: more innovation.”
After a grand spiel about intellectual property rights and why the government has to step in like city zoning officials to dictate the size, structure and nature of the fences around the stuff inside our heads, Reich has the audacity to say that “Government has to answer these new questions (of intellectual property) in order for the market to function, and for businesses and individuals to be able to predict how their actions today may influence their futures.”
“The key competitive question,” explains Reich, “is who has the right to profit from a new idea and by how much?” Well, to use Reich’s new economic lingo, the Justice Department has come up with a way to define software profits, and it makes about as much sense as anything else the government attempts to define.
Writes Bill Frezza for
Internet Week, “In order to establish a ‘fair’ pricing regime for alternative middleware … the Justice Department wants to set software prices based on the weight of the code.” Frezza, who like Dave Barry is not making this up, then quotes from the Clinton administration’s proposed final Microsoft judgment — provision 3(g)ii:
- When an OEM removes End-User Access to a Middleware Product from any Personal Computer on which Windows is preinstalled, the royalty paid by that OEM for that copy of Windows is reduced in an amount not less than the product of the otherwise applicable royalty and the ratio of the number of amount in bytes of binary code of (a) the Middleware Product as distributed separately from a Windows Operating System Product to (b) the applicable version of Windows.
Catch that? The same strategy that makes pay-by-the-word journalism usually read like 52-adjective pileups on the Infobahn slow lane may now be ramrodded down the throat of the programming industry, thanks to Reich’s “economy-defining” Justice Department. Frezza has one fitting word for the outcome: bloatware.
“Can you imagine the perverse incentives a pricing-by-the-byte plan will institutionalize?” asks Frezza. “It took 100 years to get the government to stop fixing prices for phone calls. Now we’re going to let them start pricing software?”
Timothy Roloff, a geek friend of mine (considering his line of work, the more formal term is, I believe, “information technology manager”), tells me that counting lines of code is sometimes used to “measure” the complexity of a particular program — but the byte-count method only makes sense in terms of specific code. One program may be loaded with code of simple data, while another may perform wildly complicated functions with fairly anorexic lines of code. Explaining by analogy, Tim notes, “There might be the same amount of pages in ‘Paradise Lost’ as your local phone book, but that doesn’t mean they’re equivalent.” The byte-counting measuring stick only works in the context of individual programs, not one-size-fits-all regulation.
That doesn’t matter for the feds. In an digital economy — the main products of which
Law predicts will double in processing speed and power every 18 months — the government arrives at the wonderfully forward-thinking method of selling software the same way grocers have been selling beans for the past thousand years, by the pound. The idea is so cutting edge, I need a Band-Aid.
A government that encourages programmers to jam code with needless garbage hardly seems like the body with which to entrust Reich’s all-precious “innovation.” It does fit the modus operandi, however. This is the same government that, as the National Review reported some years back, takes a total of 26,911 words to proscribe the regulation on cabbage sales. Worse, think of the tax code. According to the latest information I’ve got (what I just found laying under a beer coaster on my desk), the federal tax code has 17,000 pages of regulations — more than 73 million words (you’d almost think these guys got paid by the pound).
While I loathe the guy, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg — his most famous address — was only 286 words. Better still, it took Jesus Christ a mere 66 words to instruct his followers on how to pray to the Sovereign Lord of the entire universe.
As is the typical case, the more words used, the less gets communicated. I can guarantee the Lord’s Prayer is more fluent and discernible than cabbage trading laws — or Justice Department recommendations on how to divvy Bill Gates’ intellectual capital. The Lord’s Prayer is also decidedly more useful; Bill Gates can pray it next time someone like Janet Reno barks up his tree. In fact, considering the frothy-mouthed enthusiasm the Justice Department exudes in ravaging the software giant, I recommend Gates start praying right now.
Reich, of course, has it all wrong. When the government defines economy, the nearest synonym is stagnation, not innovation. Remember, this is the same government that can’t even reform an archaic federal program like Social Security or come up with a more efficient way of taxing its people than a tax code the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Now these ossified mossbacks are going to lecture the quicksilver, clock-beating geeks and digerati of Silicon Valley and Redmond about innovation? It’s like hookers lecturing Puritans on morals.
If the Justice Department has the final word in the Microsoft case, you might want to put a relaxing CD in the car deck because the commute along the Information Superhighway will have just hit a traffic jam.