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Dan Gillmor

Posted at 8:44 p.m. PDT Monday, June 22, 1998

To readers who differ: Let us agree to disagree

June 23, 1998

Mercury News Technology Columnist

MY mailboxes, real and virtual, have been overflowing lately. While I enjoy hearing from people who agree with me, I especially appreciate mail that takes me to task, because I learn from those who disagree.

In that vein, let's look at edited excerpts from a few recent missives. A column noting Microsoft's more redeeming qualities generated a flood of mail, much of it negative, including one from Frederick Shaul:

``This article made me shudder. It makes me reconsider whether the Mercury News really is even aware of the long-term, dampening effects Microsoft has had on the entire software industry.

``It's taken years for the software industry to even start to erect a truly free and independent software development infrastructure (e.g. Linux, Java and, amazingly, Apple), where the real innovation and value for customers is born. These attempts at shaking Microsoft's grip on this industry require business models that give everything, including programming source code, for free -- hardly a fair, competitive market.

``Sure, Microsoft products are acknowledged as the most popular, but when there is only one choice, somehow that becomes a dubious distinction and a lead weight on future development by competitors.''

Chris Gayler, tongue firmly in cheek, said:

``Thanks for giving me such a warm, fuzzy feeling about Microsoft. I especially love how you minimize illegal and anti-competitive behavior as `unfortunate.'

``Perhaps you could enjoin your colleagues to write favorably on other evil institutions -- maybe Saddam Hussein's government. I mean, after all, it built itself up to the world's fourth-largest army, produced all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, invaded its neighbors, and has the `unfortunate behavior' of gassing its own citizens. It's big, it's powerful, it's predatory, it's evil, and almost everybody hates it. So you should find journalistic balance and really strain to say something good about it. Right, Dan?''

At least nobody suggested I cover Hitler's good points. Come to think of it, one e-mail did suggest that I was praising Microsoft's ability ``to make the trains run on time.'' However, I also heard from many readers who agreed with that column -- and, in general, they were people who hate what I typically write about Microsoft and its anti-competitive business practices. A few were especially livid when, several days before the Justice Department filed its latest antitrust case against Microsoft, I pleaded with the department not to settle the case without a great deal of thought.

From a letter to the editor (and copied to me) by Chuck Dietrick, a Microsoft Bay Area manager who emphasized he was writing for himself and not in an official capacity:

``Dan Gillmor is trying to do a difficult job -- be provocative, be controversial and, most of all, sell newspapers. After all, that's what a columnist is supposed to do. Unfortunately, in his May 15th column, `U.S. would blow a huge opportunity by settling now,' he has crossed the line into the land of recklessness.

``Is he really suggesting that even if the Justice Department were to negotiate successfully for everything it wanted, that it should unnecessarily prolong the matter, thereby arbitrarily and punitively harming Microsoft, its customers, and its business partners? If so, that's a rather astounding proposition, and a curious new role for government.

``Microsoft has been successful because of hard work, some smarts, a good bit of luck, and a clear understanding that we can be obsoleted in a heartbeat if we succumb to complacency. History is a great teacher. Didn't IBM have a lock on mission-critical computing until the Unix vendors and Microsoft came along with more innovative solutions and a more compelling business value proposition? Didn't Novell virtually own networking until they failed to improve their product rapidly enough to meet the burgeoning needs of an increasingly connected world? The list goes on.

``Microsoft has also been successful because we've helped to create an environment where others can share in and contribute to that success. It is frequently overlooked or minimized, but one of our biggest assets and competitive advantages is our partner channel. Nowhere is that more evident than right here in Northern California, where we have hundreds of partners -- small, medium and large -- who are prospering, partly due to their close association with Microsoft and the concomitant support that we provide. The end result has been a great deal of mutual and enduring success.''

I don't consider it reckless to urge that public officials resist pressure to make a lousy deal that hurts competition. Dietrick also doesn't give his company's business practices the credit they deserve for its current stranglehold in desktop computing; the company certainly likes to have partners as long as they toe the Microsoft line -- a rational desire on the part of a monopolist.

A column on politicians' continued, futile attempts to control the Internet -- including a push for Web filters in public libraries -- prompted the following from Robert Harrington, who has a Web page on the topic (

``The Internet-porn-in-libraries argument has many subtleties, but no one would know that reading your column. Your language, including calling the anti-porn folks `demagogues,' contributes nothing to rational debate and serves only to raise the temperature.

``Anti-porn people have been subjected to every dirty trick in the book by the free-speech libertarians, including attempts to, yes, censor them. It makes life nice and simple to view the world in all blacks and whites, but it's not really that way.''

I don't recall saying it was, and I respect the passion of the folks who want to eliminate porn from the Internet, even if I disagree with their remedy. But censorship is a government function, which is what the anti-porn folks tend to favor; and I can't think of a topic that has fed more demagoguery in recent times.

Finally, a column about some upcoming electronic books drew this response from Jakob Nielsen, a Sun Microsystems expert in computer usability:

``Your column on electronic books does not mention their screen resolution, but given the price I am sure that it can't be very good. Human factors studies show that you need close to 300 dots-per-inch resolution to get the same readability from a screen as you do from print. (You need sharp character outlines for the eye to pick up on them quickly and not get tired by the jaggies.)

``All current computer screens provide about 25 percent slower reading speed than print, so I would guess that the electronic books you mention are in the same range. This effectively dooms them for linear reading (e.g., reading a novel).

``Online text has many advantages over dead-tree text, which is why the Web works. One advantage you mention is the possibility for a lawyer to access huge amounts of files in a single device.

``Any such non-linear use depends heavily on two features: a) great navigation support, including clear structures for the information. Since lawyers are not information architects, the software would have to provide particularly supportive means of building these structures. b) search. Navigation is horrible on the Web right now, so unless the electronic-books people have invented something much better, I predict that their device will not allow users to easily navigate huge information spaces.''

Are the e-book entrepreneurs reading this? Let's hope so. They, and you, may also want to check out Nielsen's excellent Web site devoted to usability issues (

Dan Gillmor's column appears each Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Visit Dan's Web page ( Or write him (and please include a daytime phone number -- for verification, not publication) at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, Calif. 95190; e-mail:; phone (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917.

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