The Tyranny of the Operating System

The major operating systems that rule the market (such as Windows and Mac OS X) have been silently taking over the consumer’s freedom and privacy for the past 20 years. This takeover is basically an offense to human rights. It is much more cunning and subtle than other mass-control mediums, which makes it even harder to pin-point. Therefore the question arises: is the operating system fundamentally tyrannical? And what does this mean in terms of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) for large software corporations?

The OS as a tyrant

Today’s software companies fight a never-ending battle for supremacy on the market for their products. The multitude of software programs and online applications out there is astonishing, ever increasing the already staggering competition. However, looking on a bigger scale, the market share they are fighting for is only scraps compared to what the big corporations benefit from. What accounts for such a difference between these two? The operating system and its tyrannical tendencies.

Ironically, it is the smaller software companies themselves that give such power to the software giants, by making their products only compatible with certain operating systems, such as MS Windows and Mac OS X. The average user is thus restrained to either install Windows on his PC or buy a Mac, if they want to benefit from a wide range of other software applications. Therefore the freedom of choice for consumers is restricted through this continuous monopoly of the operating systems, minimizing their given right to open usage of computers and information.

In 2010, the market share of different Windows OS versions accounted for more than 90% of all computers in the world. According to Steve Lohr (2000) “industry analysts estimate that the pretax profit on Microsoft’s Windows business is an astronomical 90 percent”. So we can easily imagine the huge profit in question, when the production cost made by Microsoft is only the original investment for building the code.

There are other free OS alternatives out there (Linux / Oracle built), such as Ubuntu. They are open-source OS, built by well-intended developer groups who believe operating systems should be open to everybody and should be free. To prove that free software can also be competitive, software critics such as Kevin Anderson evaluated the performance of Ubuntu 9.10 to be as good as that of Windows 7. The trouble is that software producers will not automatically build their programs to run on an open-source OS, as long as there is no extra financial gain from it. Corporations like Microsoft and Apple spend big money for “enticing” software companies and developers to build programs compatible only with their operating systems. Ignoring that “silent whip” might just make the difference between success and bankruptcy for a small software company.

Among the unethical, abusive practices used by Microsoft to maintain dominance on the market I can count:

  • the strong lobbying efforts to the US government to implement Windows on public service networks
  • influencing politicians (such as G.W. Bush) to back-up Microsoft in case of major lawsuits
  • lobbying efforts to influence the government against implementation or financing of the open-source Linux OS
  • threatening other software companies to quit their collaboration with Microsoft’s competition
  • sponsoring election campaigns for senators, congress representatives and presidency

The lobbying efforts of Microsoft are aggressive and border the vicinity of bribery, as the software giant spends between 8 and 10 million dollars every year only on lobbying efforts.

So where does this leave the consumer? The average computer user is most likely forced to buy a system with an already-installed OS, having limited choice and thus being “silenced” from asking for a better product. Nowadays there are only two choices on the market when you want to buy a new computer: either a PC with Windows 7 already-installed, or a Mac with a Mac OS X installed. Microsoft already has numerous deals with computer manufacturers such as Dell, HP, Toshiba, Packard-Bell, to install the Windows 7 OS beforehand, on all PCs or laptops they sell, including the OS in the price of the machine. That is in itself an abuse of power from Microsoft’s side, forcing the user to pay for the OS unknowingly and automatically monopolizing the market with the Windows OS.

Needless to say, the Windows OS comes with its own applications installed (Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player being known examples), thus further pushing its monopoly on the applications market as well. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said during an interview in 2004 that “one of the key sustaining aspects of the Microsoft Windows monopoly is Microsoft’s monopoly in applications… So if Microsoft wanted to further strengthen their Windows monopoly they would try to get more and more applications, either by acquisition [or their own development] and they’d try to keep applications out of our hands. The best way for Microsoft to sustain their Windows monopoly is to get more applications that run only on Windows.” And that is exactly what Microsoft has been doing, taking advantage of the little knowledge and experience the average user has when it comes to operating systems and applications. That in itself can be regarded as unethical practice in terms of CSR. Microsoft exploits the fact that very few users understand the way computers really work. Therefore, consumers take the OS that comes with the machine at face value, because they don’t have an alternative, nor do they know that an alternative exists.

Apple’s case is no better. Unlike PCs, where you can install other (free) operating systems like Ubuntu if you take the trouble to get through the install process, on a Mac you cannot install any other form of operating system. Macs can only run a Mac OS X operating system.

A striking similarity appears in both Microsoft’s and Apple’s cases: the lack of transparency towards the final user as to how their OS is built, what they are doing to improve the OS, how much the development of the OS really costs, how many developers are working on it, etc. Moreover, neither company freely offers the user information about alternative applications they could install on their machine (other than the built-in Microsoft or Apple applications). So one could easily suspect that they are deliberately keeping the public uninformed, in order to limit its choice for applications to their own products.

OS monopoly does not only restrict the users’ freedom of choice and abuse their lack of knowledge. It is not only the matter of high prices that defines this monopoly. It also has a deeper effect on the development of science and technology worldwide. According to Daniel Rubinfeld (the chief economist of the US Justice Department’s antitrust division), the famous Microsoft monopoly case from the 90s was about “innovation, much more than price”. From this point of view, a monopoly like Microsoft represents a technological standard imposed on the competition. Any new software application has to go through the “gateway” (as economy analyst Steve Lohr calls it) of the Windows OS or Mac OS X respectively. The OS thus becomes the baseline on which new technology is built. And here comes the main issue: in a monopolistic market where an OS does not have much competition, the corporation is not motivated to innovate its OS more than for its own short-term financial gain, while crushing any emerging competition with unethical business tactics. So the long-term negative impact this monopoly has on society is that it slows down further innovation. It can even go so far as to prevent technological revolutions from happening in the future; new applications have to be built on the existing OS frame, limiting their development to the maximum potential of the OS and inheriting any flaws or weaknesses the OS might have.

Different views: monopoly as a platform for growth

But of course, the story has another angle to it as well. Even though critics strongly voice against OS monopoly (Windows being usually the most berated), there are those who have different views.

“I congratulate Microsoft for having the power to create such a monopoly and stick to it with any means possible,” said Bert van den Meer, senior programmer for the Levi9 software company. “Without it we’d be lost in an endless multitude of different OSs and programming languages, non-standardized and with much less hope of ever getting to some industry standard. At least with Microsoft we have a clear idea about what platform we’re working on. Imagine having ten different OSs out there and having to build an application to fit each and every one of them. That, in my view, is the programmer’s hell.”

Dylan Tweney, writer for Wired Magazine, believes that the Windows monopoly was beneficial for the development of the whole computer industry, “enforcing a de facto standard that permitted thousands of software and hardware companies to blossom.” McKenzie and Lee also argue that the negative effects of the Microsoft monopoly have brought about a sort of creative outburst, providing a common platform for growth of new, innovative software applications. From this point of view, we could see Microsoft and its Windows monopoly as a kind “necessary evil”.

Shifting trends

But no matter how large the Windows monopoly has become, the tendencies of today’s computer usage are shifting towards online cloud computing. And here we have another software giant, openly challenging Microsoft for the supremacy of the operating system: Google.

Google currently holds the supremacy over the search engine market, with about 90% of all search results worldwide. There is also a huge debate brewing, questioning whether Google is a monopoly or not, the big G currently facing a trial before the EU antitrust commission for this very reason. “Google is a dangerous monopoly, more than Microsoft ever was”, says Joe Wilcox, writer for Betanews. “Google’s monopoly would be over information, and there is just too much opportunity for abuse”, he added in an article last February.

To top it up, Google has announced the launch of a new operating system in late 2011 that will completely change the way we think about the classical OS: the Chrome OS. This new OS will be built around the browser technology of Chrome, one of today’s fastest and most successful browsers available; in a couple of words: there is no operating system anymore, your operating system IS your browser, and all your files will be stored online, for free, on Google’s servers. It all sounds quite magical! However, this new online OS, combined with the monopoly that Google already has on search results worldwide, brings up new reasons to worry: if Google has the potential to control both the storage of our personal information and the information we search for on the web, then what’s stopping its new OS from becoming another tyrant?

Is the operating system fundamentally tyrannical?

In my opinion, as long as any OS is owned by a corporation, it has all the necessary characteristics for becoming a tyrant. A corporation will always focus on the interests of its shareholders, whose main purpose is financial gain. So no matter how honest were its intentions in the beginning, it is cautious to say that as long as financial gain is sought from such a development, the OS, whether classical or reinvented, will pose a potential threat to our freedom of choice, freedom of expression and privacy. Therefore from a CSR point of view, the imperative responsibility of large software corporations is to keep the OS as transparent and open to the public as possible, and to protect it from any tendency to abuse its power over users.

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