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Keeping Microsoft together

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The concept of a monopoly always was difficult to nail down when it came to Microsoft. The computer giant didn't fit the normal model. Standard Oil controlled production of a resource that had a narrow and specific application. The phone company once monopolized the lines that controlled, once again, a narrow and specific function.

But the computer industry is limited only by the imagination and resourcefulness of the human mind. Bill Gates, through his own initiative and genius, built a product that became the industry leader, but the computer industry still remained extremely competitive. True, he did ruthlessly attack his competitors, but the industry itself was constantly shifting and mutating — as difficult to capture as mercury. How can anyone monopolize the human imagination?

The Bush administration's decision last week to back away from a breakup of Microsoft was a practical one. Given a recent court of appeals decision overturning the breakup order, it might have taken years to impose that kind of a Draconian penalty. But it also was a philosophical decision. President George W. Bush doesn't believe courtrooms are the place to solve business disputes. He prefers the marketplace, which has proven itself time and again.

Of course, government must set rules and limits. The evidence showed that Microsoft did indeed compete unfairly in a number of ways, seeking to throw its weight around with tactics that, if they didn't stifle, certainly chilled competition. Some Utah businesses fell victim to this.

But the Bush administration has not entirely abandoned its suit against Microsoft. It is asking the court to let consumers add or remove icons on the Windows operating system and to require Microsoft to share its operating system codes with software designers. It still wants an end to exclusive deals that require retailers to sell only Microsoft products.

Critics say the government would have a difficult time monitoring such a settlement, and that a clean split of the company would have been better. But while that effort would have dragged on in court, the industry itself would have grown and changed and taken off in any of several different directions, making the final outcome meaningless.

Perhaps it is only coincidental that the economy has soured and the computer industry has stagnated since Microsoft fell under a cloud. But uncertainty seems to reign right now in a field that was accustomed only to continual growth. The penalties the Bush administration seeks would protect competitors while quickly settling much of that uncertainty. That seems to be a good solution for all.