As things in court have gone on, the antitrust case against Microsoft threatens to break the company apart, moving the operating systems away from the rest of Microsoft's hardware and software functions. Linux proponents have hailed the possibility as a chance for Linux and open source software to become mainstream. Consumer groups point to Microsoft's pricing -- especially the newly announced $109 cost of an UPGRADE CD for Windows Millenium Edition -- as proof positive that they have grown too big, and in some senses I as a consumer can agree that the pricing on Windows seems ridiculous. Putting those aside, however, what will a possible split of Microsoft mean to gamers?
A look back in time as little as 5 to 10 years ago reveals a startling picture; games being produced for multiple platforms, to get the computer market. In an original sense, one can go back as far as the early '80s when Microsoft as such didn't exist and Apple, Commodore, and Tandy all competed with the console systems and computers alike. Fast forward a few years -- to the early '90s -- and DOS reigned on the x86 machine. DOS, however, wasn't strictly a Microsoft creation at the time -- other versions from companies like IBM competed, MS-DOS against PC-DOS against other, lesser-known versions. In addition, as surprising as it sounds, other platforms such as the Amiga and Mac competed for users as well. The Wintel PC wasn't prevalent... yet.
Fast-Forward a few more years; Microsoft Windows arrives, moving on through Windows 95 and Windows 98. Microsoft acquires a dominant hold on the PC industry as x86 architecture blasts Amiga and Mac machines out of the water, becoming the standard hardware that everyone uses. Meanwhile, the gaming industry moves likewise -- where there had been companies developing games for more than one OS, now more and more switched to supporting merely one: Microsoft Windows. As the number of applications for alternative OSes diminished, people quit using them simply because they couldn't get what they wanted out of them, and the effect expanded.
Regardless whether Microsoft actually broke antitrust laws (I'll leave my opinion on that subject out of this), the question remains: what can gamers actually expect to see from a breakup of Microsoft? Actually, it's not quite as much as one would expect. The effects would be far from Microsoft's idea that it would to a massive amount of damage to the industry, but they wouldn't be insignificant either.
EFFECT #1: Microsoft's sponsorship of game makers, at least for a little while, would go down. Why is this so? First of all, Microsoft the operating system company could no longer hand its subsidiaries free SDK's and help developing their games, since these subsidiaries would likely be under the software company instead. In addition, at some point every part of the company will have to start developing for alternative OSes, not because they want to but because not giving at least lip service to following the settlement would likely lead to more courtroom strife. In addition, there's the money to be consumed in the splitup, which will need to be recouped and means that non-profitable sections may get the ax. Bottom line: expect to see Microsoft spin off or outright drop the lesser-known or badly-done games it has sponsored in the past, but expect the stuff they keep to be better than people usually expect. The net result is less games coming out that people buy and wish they could return.
EFFECT #2: A possible resurgence of such word processing and other utilities like IBM's Lotus line. This is actually one of the things the Justice department and consumer groups really want to see happen, It would make Microsoft Office actually have something to compete with, which it hasn't in a long time, and make an impact on pricing. Plus, it would do wonders for some of the bundling concerns that people have.
EFFECT #3: Other software companies will be able to non-covertly support alternative OSes if they choose; id software won't be the only ones releasing Linux builds of their games. However, this will take time. Remember that the development time on games nowadays can be as long as 4 years, so the earliest we would really see non-Windows games is a year after the split is accomplished. Eventually we might see an equivalence, like the industry originally saw, where multiple OSes are supported by the same products. However, this produces a risk and change as well; not many games will be able to be supported. This comes because of the development costs associated with developing for multiple platforms and porting the game, which can be major or minor. Companies besides Microsoft will have to cut back on supporting titles which aren't going to be very good or successful.
EFFECT #4: The price of OSes will go down, specifically the price of Windows. Right now, those wanting to upgrade to Windows ME will have to spend $109 plus tax; after the breakup, Microsoft will likely have to divulge the details of its OS core and/or be required to sell at fair market value the source code so that competitors may enter the market. Linux will begin to support DirectX and Direct3D commands, most likely, within the WinE project. Game companies will rethink making games that only use Direct3D, since it's not exactly the most portable of 3D APIs, and OpenGL may see something of a resurgence. Windows will have to compete with other OSes being put out that can run the same software it can, instruction for instruction, and so the companies will start trying to get users by bringing the prices somewhere back down to reality.
EFFECT #5: Internet access for IE users will slow down a bit. That's right, it will slow down -- because IE won't have the core-level access it has enjoyed that has given it a speed edge versus Netscape. Microsoft can either redesign (some would say fix) its OS not to offer those commands to IE, or it can leave them in and have Netscape and every other browser use them as well. Given this option, most likely it'll be removed, and Internet Explorer will have to do things the same way other browsers do.
EFFECT #6: Specialized Windows-based hardware won't be as prevalent; hardware will start to be more rounded, since optimization for Windows necessarily means a slowdown to other operating systems. Companies covering their bets will look toward hardware that can be driven by any OS, or be cut out of parts of the market.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Breaking up Windows will really only have two effects for gamers; OS choice will (possibly) come into existence, and less games will be on the market. On the other hand, if the games cut out are the ones which are pretty bad anyways, this might be a good thing. The government's provision is especially hard to see, however, because all previous antitrust breakups have literally been right down the middle -- Standard Oil became a bunch of smaller oil companies all of which sold the SAME product, AT&T became the numerous baby bells like MCI and Sprint, and so on. If the government were following this example Microsoft would be split into companies that all produce the same product, which isn't what's been proposed. While forcing Microsoft to sell/give away its source code gives other companies currently existing the chance to compete, the question is really whether or not they will risk it; the net result could be two companies that each have just as much power to control consumers as the original one company does now.
Either way, this won't happen for a long time and it certainly won't happen overnight, so for now just stay tuned and keep rooting for whichever side you're on.
The above is my personal opinion, and may or may not represent the opinion of Glide Underground. The image at top is a product of the Food Court, and was used for the sole purpose of humor. All copyrights used in this article are copyright their respective copyright owners; please don't hurt me.