U.S. seeks to take IE from Microsoft

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the government forces arrayed against Microsoft Corporation in its historic antitrust trial will seek to strip Microsoft of its rights to Internet Explorer, the Web browser at the heart of the case. This proposal would be but one of numerous suggestions made to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who will hear presentations from both sides in the case next month. In essence, Internet Explorer would be opened up so that any company could get a royalty-free license to the product, giving them access to its source code so that modifications and improvements could be easily made.

What's interesting about this development, of course, is that it represents a new way of thinking on the part of the government. During the settlement talks, the government had dropped the idea of breaking up the company, and Microsoft's subsequent proposals were considered inadequate, featuring relatively minor behavior remedies. With the release of the conclusions of law, however, and the declaration of Microsoft's guilt to back it, the government is now bargaining from a position of power. And though they seem to be still backing away from breakup discussions, its proposals will definitely be tougher than they were during the settlement talks.

But the widespread distribution of IE to competitors and partners alike, along with its source code, is just a first step. The government is also considering a number of similar moves for Windows 2000 and its integrated server software, and Microsoft Office, a product with an even clearer monopoly than Windows itself. These and other possible remedies are being floated around the computer industry this month in an effort to get feedback.

Microsoft began developing Internet Explorer in 1995 to seize a part of the then nascent Internet/Web market; the first version was bundled not with Windows, but with the extra-cost "Plus!" add-on product. Future versions of IE were integrated more closely with Windows, and Microsoft finally began its first Windows/IE bundling with the release of Internet Explorer 3.0 and Windows 95 OSR-2 in 1996. Since then, every release of Windows has been bundled with IE, which was designed to replace the functionality of key system files so as to "integrate" more closely with the underlying operating system. Windows 98 was the first retail release of Windows to feature this integration as an inseparable "single" product.

The government argued during the antitrust trial that Microsoft integrated IE into Windows solely to harm the Netscape Web browser, which was then in command of the market. And indeed, it was proven during the trial that Microsoft held up the release of Windows 98 for months, solely to harm Netscape. The judge also ruled that no good reasons, technical or otherwise, were ever given by Microsoft for the integration, and that the functionality provided by this bundling would have been easy to otherwise duplicate, without placing the stability of Windows at jeopardy; Internet Explorer is widely acknowledged to be the buggiest component of Windows, and its fragile architecture is often the cause of blue screen crashes and system halts. Microsoft argues that the integration of IE and Windows is beneficial to consumers, however.

The government will present its final remedy recommendations to Judge Jackson on April 25

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