Volume 92, Issue 92
Tuesday, March 23, 1999
The computer industry is quickly realizing the catch-22 nature of compatibility.
The recent anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft has brought this issue to the forefront, as the accusations made against Microsoft challenge their "enforced" compatibility.
Before the relatively monumental release of Windows '95 there existed a barely controlled chaos in terms of computer hardware. Whether one video card would be compatible with any particular program was as much a matter of chance as brand loyalty. In addition, the installation of new components was frightfully difficult.
I recall several pitched battles between the forces of my memory driver and my CD-ROM controller each skirmish resulted in a few more gray hairs as casualties. The lack of an "easy" internet system made web browsing an arcane series of programs each co-dependent upon another, but never really getting along, in the same manner as the two aunts who accidentally bring the same dish to the family potluck.
Windows '95 changed a lot of difficulties into relatively easy to use and understand systems. The all-graphic interface was far from innovative (Apple was ahead in that regard by the better portion of a decade) but it brought a sense of simplicity to PCs which had been lacking. New hardware proudly claimed "Plug and Play" compatibility and occasionally managed it.
The internet became much easier to use with new internet explorers and a new realm of easy to use applications was born. These marvelous programs could simultaneously link documents, sounds, images and web resources into one cohesive whole, creating a new standard for information exchange. At least, it was possible as long as Microsoft-endorsed products were being employed.
Therein lies the rub! Compatibility comes at a price freedom of innovation. "Plug and Play" left room for developers to move about, but not as much room as they had enjoyed in the previous anarchy. This was by no means a setback, but one must suspect restrictions have slowed the pace of growth.
On the internet, a system staunchly devoted to absolute freedom of information, the easiest way to produce a web page is through a Microsoft product, but said product produces very ugly results in terms of the underlying programming required to make the page. This, in turn, makes it very difficult to edit the page without using said product. The result? A metaphorical dependency on a poorly written translation dictionary when trying to speak the language of the web.
The accusation that Microsoft has used bullying tactics to preserve their electronic dominance is central to the anti-trust issue. Thus, the catch-22: If Microsoft is suppressing superior programs or hardware for their own ends, every user suffers. Conversely, if Microsoft hadn't created a standard with Windows '95, we would have little in terms of a reference point to judge a program superior.
Copyright © The Gazette 1999