JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Larry ElderJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / April 13, 1998 / 17 Nissan, 5758

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Bundling and unbundling

THE GOVERNMENT'S legal attacks on Microsoft for bundling various computer programs in its Windows operating system are attacking precisely what there needs to be more of in the computer industry, where too many products are unbundled now.

It is a frustrating business to phone one of the computer companies' technical support systems and be told that what you have is a software problem, not a hardware problem. Then you phone the software company's technical support people, who tell you that you have a hardware problem and that you should call the computer company. Bill Gates

This doesn't happen in the automobile industry. If you drive a brand-new car off the dealer's lot and the tires come off the wheels before you get home, the dealer cannot tell you, "That's Goodyear's problem, don't bring it to us." Or, if the ignition doesn't work, they can't say, "Don't blame us. Call Champion spark plugs."

The automobile is sold as a bundle of products and whoever sold you that bundle is responsible for the whole thing. They put the bundle together and it is up to them to see that it all works. If some of their suppliers are not sending them good stuff, then it is up to them to find new suppliers and to do a better job of inspecting the supplies.

Computer companies typically load many kinds of software into their machines, in addition to an operating system like Microsoft's Windows. They then advertise these extra features in order to attract customers. But they are quick to pass the buck if any of it doesn't work.

Not long ago, I bought a laptop that can send an infrared beam to a printer, so that you can print without having to attach a cord. Then I bought a printer with a port for receiving an infrared signal. But neither the printer manual nor the computer manual bothered to say how to operate it!

When I phoned the printer company to point out that their manual said nothing about how to use this feature, their technical support guy seemed to think I was being unreasonable in expecting them or the computer company to tell me what to do, because Microsoft makes the software that operates this feature and I should ask them how to operate it.

Fortunately, I also have a desktop computer with an old-fashioned cord connected to the printer. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to print anything.

If the government wanted to do something useful, they could hold the computer companies legally responsible for the entire product that they sell -- the whole bundle for which they charge the customer. Free market economists do not believe that the government should "do nothing." But they think it is crucial to understand just what the government should and should not do.

Government is the ultimate repository of force in a society. That force can be used to see that a general framework of laws is followed and that contracts between private individuals are enforced. This is basically an umpire's role.

Free market economists are against the government being a player-umpire. In some sports there are player-managers but in no sports are there player-umpires. The two roles are incompatible.

The government has no business saying what ought to be in the bundle that is sold to the customer. But the law ought be able to say that whoever sold that bundle is legally responsible for all of it.

Unfortunately, politicians, bureaucrats and judges often seem unable to resist the temptation to meddle in the details of private transactions. This makes for a fundamentally different kind of economy -- and one that has failed around the world, spectacularly in the Communist bloc and with less publicized disasters in other countries.

Microsoft is not the first company to have the government try to second-guess the bundle it is offering for sale. Back in 1956, the government forced Eastman Kodak to stop selling Kodachrome film with the developing included.

Because developing Kodachrome is more complicated than developing most other color films, Kodak sold it with the processing included, so that they could see that it got done right. But antitrust lawyers forced them to sell the film and processing separately.

We need an umpire, not a nanny.


4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.