Videotaped testimony, executive accusations, and legal wrangling: more problems with the U.S. presidency? No, this time it’s Bill Gates and Microsoft on trial in the courtroom and in the media. In this issue Matt Deatherage looks at the antitrust trial, and why Mac users need to pay attention. Also, we feature a look at the MP3 format for listening to CD-quality music from the Internet, and report on updates to Photoshop 5 and Font Reserve 2.
Font Reserve 2.0 Matures Beautifully — DiamondSoft has greatly improved their already splendid utility for organizing, viewing, and activating your fonts. (See "The Final Font Frontier" in TidBITS-400.) Font Reserve 2.0’s font database structure is simplified: it’s an ordinary folder, so you can back it up, copy it, and maintain more than one. Fonts can now be listed, and activated, by suitcase. For many applications, fonts required by a document can enable themselves automatically. Users can print customizable type-book samples and generate reports; sharing of settings is easier, and fonts can be added temporarily as aliases (good for one-time jobs with special associated fonts). Total AppleScript automation is possible, though I haven’t figured it out yet. Support for GX fonts is added; cosmetic compatibility problems (with Mac OS 8.5 and Kaleidoscope) are gone. The new manual (in PDF) is excellent. Font Reserve 2.0 is $100; registered owners can download the 5.4 MB upgrade for free, and OEM users may contact DiamondSoft to upgrade for $70. [MAN]
Photoshop Update Tweaks Type, Color — Adobe recently released a Photoshop 5.0.2 update that improves the image-editing program’s type handling and color management. The auto-kerning feature of the Type tool now uses correct kerning values, while a new anti-aliasing algorithm makes small text more readable. (For a discussion of type and anti-aliasing, see "Better Typography Coming to a Screen Near You" in TidBITS-403.) Photoshop 5.0.2 also includes a Color Management Wizard for configuring color management settings; those settings also now specify that untagged RGB files not be converted to the sRGB color space when opened. (Adobe offers a technical guide describing how Photoshop 5’s new color engine works, which differs significantly from previous versions.) The free update is a 3.9 MB download. [JLC]
My foray into the world of MP3 music began not online, but while staring at the TV. A particular car commercial was airing for the hundredth time that night, featuring an infectious little song based on a tune called 88 Lines about 44 Women. I wanted to hear the song in its entirety and knew the Internet would be the key.
My musical craving would also mean a chance to play with MP3, a high-quality audio format that has become quite popular in some Internet circles.
A search of DejaNews revealed the tune I longed to hear was by a new wave band called The Nails. Finding that information was easy. Finding the song itself was another matter, involving a frustrating foray into the world of pirate Web sites that claim to offer free (although not legal) MP3 files. Ultimately I did find the song – legally – on the official Nails home page. My thirst for ’80s new wave was quenched, but I learned volumes about MP3 in the process.
First Things First — MP3 stands for MPEG 1 layer 3: it’s a file format for storing audio that can be replayed at near compact disc quality. The music sounds great. To my untrained ears, properly encoded MP3 files sound just as good as tunes from a CD. All it takes to play MP3 music is player software on your computer, which should be at least a PowerPC-based Mac (exact requirements vary by player). You also need something to listen to: MP3 files are available for download, or you can create them yourself from CDs you own.
Besides raw computing power, MP3 files require bandwidth and storage space. MP3 files weigh in at about one megabyte per minute of audio: your average pop song takes 3 or 4 MB; Arlo Guthrie’s verbose Alice’s Restaurant would run around 20 MB. In fact, MP3 files are amazingly small, taking up about 10 percent of the space of AIFF or other high-quality sound formats. (Like JPEG is to graphics, MPEG is a lossy compression format – some information is lost in encoding, but not enough that most people would notice.) If you’re downloading MP3s, come armed with a fast connection or prepare for a long wait. Even if you’re encoding the files yourself, make sure you have enough disk space.
Detailed information about MP3 and related file formats is available at the MPEG Archive. The site includes a brutally technical FAQ, player downloads for many platforms, and other information.
Getting a Player — To hear your fabulous MP3 song files, you need an MP3 player.
Windows users enjoy a veritable cornucopia of MP3 players, but Mac users have fewer choices, including the popular MacAmp and SoundApp. MacAmp’s interface resembles the front panel of a compact disc player, complete with track timer and equalizer blinky lights. There’s also a playlist: you can drag your MP3 files onto the playlist and move them around to tweak the order in which they play.
SoundApp offers a simpler interface. Although it can play sounds of many types other than MP3, SoundApp includes only a rudimentary playlist feature. A list of other players for the Macintosh can be found at MP3.com’s archive of Mac software.
Downloading MP3s — There are two distinct types of MP3 files on the Internet – legal and illegal. Creators put legitimate MP3s online for you to enjoy: the people who own the copyright to the music have chosen to share. Legitimate MP3s songs are easy to find – and listening to them won’t lead to an unsightly buildup of bad karma.
MP3.com reports that users downloaded more than two million songs from that site in September. According to the International Federation of Phonographic Industries, about 90 million MP3 files are downloaded each month – this presumably counts only legitimate ones.
The bad news? The mainstream recording industry hasn’t embraced MP3, so legitimate recordings from well-known bands are rare. In fact, many people in the recording industry see MP3s as a major threat. Because it’s so easy to create great-sounding MP3 files from a CD and share those files for free online, the recording industry stands to lose big bucks to do-it-yourself pirates who would rather trade songs than pay for a CD. So chances are your favorite Top 40 group isn’t yet on the MP3 bandwagon.
That said, a few well-known artists and labels are experimenting with MP3. Among them are the Beastie Boys, Dionne Warwick, and Taylor Dayne. Some make selected tracks available for free to spur sales of CDs, while others take the next step of selling MP3 tunes directly via the Internet.
Most of the music on legitimate MP3 Web sites is from bands you’ve never heard, covering every genre from blues to techno. Just because you’ve never heard of these bands doesn’t mean they’re lousy – in fact, I’ve discovered some great music. Then again, there’s a reason that others of these bands lurk in obscurity: they stink.
Two sites with massive collections of free, legitimate MP3 music files are MP3.com and the Internet Underground Music Archive. Both let you search for music by genre, but your findings will almost always be a crap shoot if you don’t recognize band names. If you’re interested in hearing new music and indie bands, this is a great way to do so. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you find a great song – but brace yourself for the truly bad ones.
Illegal MP3s – music files shared without the permission of the copyright holders – also abound. If your favorite bands don’t release MP3 music, folks on the Internet will do it for them. I could get on my soapbox and yammer about why piracy is wrong, but I won’t. I’ll just say this: trying to get music from pirate MP3 sites is a pain in the Hootie.
The sites are easy to find in search engines, but then you’ll run into dead links galore, since ISPs quickly shut down such pirate sites. Sites that do exist may only offer a handful of songs for download (but claim to have an archive of thousands). Other sites require you to upload a song for each one that you download. I’m no expert in the pirate MP3 scene, and maybe I don’t know where to look, but two hours of searching the online backwaters yielded few MP3 files, none of which I even cared to hear.
An MP3 guru tells me Usenet is the tool of choice for receiving pirate MP3s, feeding two to three gigabytes of MP3 files daily, and accounting for more than 10 percent of all Usenet bandwidth.
Roll Your Own — Sharing copyrighted music is illegal, but it is legal to create MP3 files for your own use from CDs you own. Encoding a single song or an entire CD is simple if you’re armed with a CD-ROM drive and encoding software. Creating an MP3 file from a CD track is a two-step process: first, you convert the CD audio to a file format native to the computer such as AIFF – this process is called ripping. Next, you convert that file to an MP3 file in a process called encoding. Depending on the software you use, ripping and encoding can be a one-step or two-step process.
You could rip your favorite tracks from otherwise forgettable CDs to create a "best of" MP3 mix folder. If you have removable storage like a Zip or Jaz drive, you could put those MP3 files onto a removable cartridge and enjoy your tunes whenever you’re in the mood. (Giving copies of those files to anyone or uploading them to the Internet is copyright infringement.)
The only one-step Mac ripper/encoder I’ve found on the Internet is MPEG Audio Creator, which is easy to use. However, it can create only MPEG 1 layer 2 files (dubbed MP2), an older version and slightly larger version of the file format.
Until someone writes a Mac MP3 ripping/encoding tool, creating true MP3 files requires two programs. You first use CDtoAIFF to create an AIFF file from a CD track. Then Mpecker Encoder turns that AIFF into an MP3 file.
Encoding an MP3 file is an intensive process, so be prepared to see a lot of the busy cursor.
There you have it: the story of how an incessant car commercial got me hooked on a forgotten ’80s band, led me to learn more than I thought I wanted to know about MP3, and caused me to use every last bit of hard drive space to store countless music files. I gotta stop watching so much TV.
[Kevin Savetz writes about Macs and the Internet for Computer Shopper and other magazines. An avid collector of vintage computers, Kevin is as likely to be playing with an Atari 800 or Timex-Sinclair as with his Mac.]
As trial continues on the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Microsoft, the public remains divided about whether or not Microsoft has tried to interfere with competition, and if so, if it matters. If you think this isn’t an Apple problem, think again, because this issue has repercussions throughout the computing industry. Apple could benefit or lose no matter which way the issue is resolved, but after staking out the available paths, I think you’ll discover a preferable one.
What Exactly Is Wrong? The problem presented by Microsoft’s domination of the computer industry is complex and will likely have a complex solution, something you’ve probably guessed because no proposal has yet made sense to everyone. The issue defies attempts to encapsulate it in sound bites, so please indulge a more thorough discussion.
U.S. laws from the early 20th century classify businesses that hold a nearly exclusive position in a given market as "monopolies." That era saw several such businesses achieve virtual strangleholds on the markets they allegedly served. When competition arose, the monopoly firms would use their powerful positions either to squash it or to assimilate it in moves that predated the Borg by 500 years. Standard Oil, for example, owned railroads, insuring that Standard-brand oil was transported less expensively than any other oil. That gave Standard Oil lower costs and an unbeatable price advantage.
Standard Oil theoretically consisted of several companies, but they acted in collusion as a giant entity to fix prices and eliminate competition. Such a collaboration is called a "trust," defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a combination of firms or corporations for the purpose of reducing competition and controlling prices throughout a business or an industry." That’s why the pro-competition laws in the U.S. are called "antitrust" laws, even though they’re often applied to a single corporation, such as AT&T or Microsoft.
The laws themselves are often debated. Some quote economist Adam Smith, who theorized than an "Invisible Hand" works to guide free markets to optimal positions. If one company becomes too powerful, the Invisible Hand points to opportunities for smaller companies to come in and pick off sales, restoring competition. If no company succeeds in a market, the Invisible Hand is signing that no such market exists. The theory has withstood a few centuries of interpretation and practice, and remains the chief explanation of why a mostly unregulated economy manages to stay afloat so well. Regulations on U.S. businesses are typically social; few firms are told what products they can and cannot sell, and prohibited items are usually banned for social reasons like toxicity or "national security." Since the Invisible Hand usually keeps the economy flourishing, people are reluctant to see a bureaucracy like the U.S. government start regulating commerce.
Proponents of regulation and antitrust laws say this is a simplistic notion. Adam Smith, living hundreds of years ago, couldn’t have imagined modern business. Corporations today are commonplace – it takes only a form and a small payment to start one. But they were extremely rare in Smith’s day and for a long time thereafter – when Texas became a state, chartering a corporation took a two-thirds majority of both houses of the legislature. Corporations divorce personal responsibility from economic action, and it can be argued this has greatly changed how our economy works. Today, corporations are seen as responsible only to their shareholders. As little as 20 years ago, such businesses were widely – and without much question – seen as also having duties to their employees, the communities in which they reside, and their customers. Today there is little controversy, though much grumbling, if a corporation decides to lay off a few thousand people in the name of higher profits.
Abandoning older customers in favor of newer ones may not be the best business move, but many companies do just that if the new path leads to higher profitability – how many profitable Macintosh software companies have decided to become more profitable Windows companies? The news is full of lawsuits, boycotts, and other actions against companies that have allegedly sold products they knew were harmful, or engaged in practices which they knew could damage the environment or employee health, simply for higher profits. Exploitation of workers was a staple of Adam Smith’s era also, but in Smith’s economy, such business owners could be held personally responsible for their actions. Today that responsibility lies with the corporations themselves, and corporations can be punished only economically unless specific charges can be proven against specific people. The buck stops nowhere, and lack of responsibility leads to a lack of social conscience.
That said, there are two key questions in the Microsoft matter:
1. Did Microsoft break the letter or spirit of the U.S. antitrust laws?
2. If they did, should Microsoft be punished, or should the laws be changed?
Is Microsoft Guilty? Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson is currently presiding over a trial to decide that question, but even "guilty" is a loaded word. Microsoft is charged with civil, not criminal, violations of the antitrust laws.
In June, when we first considered this issue in MWJ, we concluded that Microsoft was probably in violation of these laws based on evidence available at the time. The revelations at trial have been interesting, but haven’t done much to damage the basic case against the company.
Under U.S. law, a company that holds a monopoly position cannot use that advantage to achieve dominance in another market. A monopoly position by itself is tolerable; public utilities are often said to constitute "natural monopolies" because the infrastructure of power lines and phone cables is impractical, if not impossible, to duplicate. Those utilities can often stay intact at the price of regulation, but sometimes even that isn’t enough for regulators, as the 1984 breakup of AT&T demonstrated. It’s easy to forget that in 1984, AT&T was pressing to require that all modems be used on business-rate phone lines. Today’s competitive market would laugh at such a notion.
Conservative estimates give Microsoft 80 percent of computer operating systems sold today, a monopoly by most standards. For better or worse, companies in monopoly positions are held to stricter standards. If Microsoft tries to use its position as the dominant OS vendor to become a dominant force in another market, the company has broken the rules. It’s pretty clear this is what happened with Internet Explorer.
The U.S. Justice Department alleges that Microsoft entered the Web browser market in 1995 because Netscape was talking about Netscape Navigator replacing the operating system. Windows (or Mac OS) would host Navigator, but Navigator would be your gateway to Internet capabilities, from the Web to file transfer to videoconferencing. Historically, Microsoft has made its Big Money on applications like Office and Encarta, with help from server software like BackOffice and Windows NT Server Edition (the one bundled with lots of Microsoft’s servers). Windows is now posting lots of revenue for Microsoft, but it’s unclear how the company accounts for the servers that are technically applications but sold with Windows NT Server Edition as "platforms." Microsoft software often does well because it takes full advantage of the latest advances in Microsoft operating systems. Microsoft Office 95 was available when Windows 95 was released, providing benefits like long file names to frustrated Office users. If Microsoft became "just another developer" writing Internet software to specifications set by Netscape, they’d lose a major competitive advantage, and that was not acceptable to super-competitive Microsoft.
So they created an Internet strategy that involved not only moving applications towards Internet standards and providing servers for those standards (a smart move few people would question), but also creating a Microsoft Internet browser to provide Microsoft’s own layer of "middleware." If the Internet did become the next operating system, Microsoft wanted it to be their Internet. They wanted the standards for multimedia to be Microsoft standards, not QuickTime. They wanted people to write ActiveX controls to add on to a browser’s functionality – not Netscape plug-ins or OpenDoc parts or Java applets. They wanted standards invented in Redmond and incorporated in Microsoft applications, not some third-party technology that another company knew better.
This is all healthy competition, an area the government normally wouldn’t touch – but it didn’t stop there. Microsoft also allegedly decided to use its position as the supplier of Windows to force its Internet software into customer hands. The Department of Justice (DOJ) claims that Microsoft required Windows licensees like Compaq and Dell to include the Internet Explorer icon on all systems or risk losing the right to distribute Windows. The DOJ further alleges that Microsoft initially refused to allow PC makers the right to include Netscape Navigator or any other Web browser with PCs equipped with Windows 95, and that Microsoft coerced Internet service providers into preferring Microsoft Internet software by providing priceless marketing exposure within Windows for those who cooperated and denying it to those who stuck with Netscape.
Early evidence released in the trial supports some of these claims. David Colburn, AOL’s senior vice-president of business affairs, has testified that Microsoft approached the company to make Internet Explorer the browser of the AOL software – specifically asking "How much do we need to pay you to screw Netscape?" Microsoft points to other documents in the AOL negotiations emphasizing the technical merits of Microsoft’s software – how it competes with Netscape. But the government’s claim is not that Microsoft’s browser works poorly, it’s that they tried to use a monopoly position with Windows to dominate the Internet software market. In that sense, the AOL testimony was particularly damaging, because Colburn was not swayed from his claim that AOL chose Microsoft’s technology because it was the only way to have AOL’s client software included on the desktop of every copy of Windows 95.
Other allegations say Microsoft used similar tactics with ISPs – unless they agreed to promote Internet Explorer, restrict distribution of Netscape Navigator, and try to convert users to Microsoft software, they wouldn’t be included in Windows 95’s built-in software for signing up new Internet accounts. In each case, Microsoft is accused of using the power of owning Windows to push Microsoft Internet software into the hands of people who may or may not have wanted it. Few people will purchase a program when a free version does almost everything they need. If you doubt this, think of how many email users you know who have never purchased a commercial client like Claris Emailer, Eudora Pro, or Bare Bones Mailsmith. Microsoft counts on this strategy to increase market share; recent figures show Microsoft Internet Explorer now has anywhere from 40 percent to 55 percent of the browser market, up from nothing in 1995.
The Joy of Bundling — Microsoft, in part, defends against these allegations by saying Internet Explorer is part of the operating system. The Justice Department says Internet Explorer is an application, just like Microsoft Word or Netscape Communicator or Riven. As such, Microsoft’s inclusion of the browser in Windows 98 is bundling, and anything that’s bundled can be unbundled. Microsoft rebuts by saying Internet Explorer functionality is built into Windows 98 and used by many parts of the operating system; the Internet Explorer "application" is just a shell that puts an application wrapper around core Windows 98 capabilities. Trying to rip out those capabilities would be as disastrous as trying to remove the Apple Event Manager from the Mac OS.
The Internet Explorer functionality is increasingly contained in what Mac OS users know as shared libraries (called dynamically linked libraries, or DLLs, to Windows folk). The Windows version of Internet Explorer calls those libraries to do the majority of its work. Other parts of Windows 98 use those libraries as well, as do a growing number of applications (for example, Eudora Pro 4.0 for Windows can use those libraries to render HTML-formatted email), so unbundling them is not an option for Microsoft. That’s why the company maintains that the government’s demand to remove the "shell" application is misguided, since the bulk of the Internet Explorer functionality must remain in Windows 98 for it and other applications to work properly.
So is it bundled? Not in a traditional sense. Microsoft is to be commended for adding more Internet functionality to the OS, since the media continues to emphasize how the Internet is increasingly important to Every Single Person in the World. Removing the Internet Explorer shell doesn’t solve the problem, and neither would the government’s belated request that Microsoft should bundle Netscape Communicator with Windows 98. Communicator is now free in response to Microsoft’s free browser, so Microsoft would incur no cost for the bundling, but the company’s resistance to the suggestion shows how deeply Microsoft is out to control the middleware layer Netscape threatened to dominate just two years ago.
Before we surrender Microsoft to the DOJ’s legal wolves, however, it’s important to realize that this isn’t a simple case of one company bullying others. The outcome of Microsoft’s antitrust trial promises to impact the rest of the industry as well, and we’ll look at that in part two of this article.
[Matt Deatherage is the publisher of MWJ, an acclaimed subscription-only newsletter for serious Macintosh users. Those who sign up this week for a free three-issue trial subscription can still receive MWJ’s Mac OS 8.5 special edition, the most comprehensive coverage of Mac OS 8.5 available anywhere.]