Opinion: Some observations about the MS trial

I can tell that the Microsoft trial has seeped into the public consciousness because I get asked about it fairly often by my "normal" friends (that is, the ones that aren't geeks like me). The question I get asked most often is about why the company is being sued by the federal government. I'll assume that most WinInfo readers are up on this topic and jump ahead to question number two:

What do I think is going to happen?

Well, as I've said since the lawsuit was first announced (though I don't think I've mentioned this yet in WinInfo), I believe that Microsoft will be found guilty as charged but that the decision will be overturned on appeal. There is just too much legal precedent--including a vitally important June decision that declared that Windows and Internet Explorer are, indeed, an integrated product--for Microsoft to ultimately be found at fault. Judge Jackson, however, clearly has it out for the software giant. I've also often said that Jackson has probably already written his ruling: He seems bored to the point of sleepiness in court most days, while he's railing against Microsoft's lawyers on others. All of Jackson's decisions against Microsoft have been overturned. This one will be as well.

But is Microsoft really guilty of anti-competitive practices?

I'm not a legal expert (and I've marked this article as "opinion;" I'll let you decide whether it's an informed opinion) but I don't think so. My understanding of antitrust law is that you must prove that consumers have been hurt in some way. This is impossible: By supplying its customers with free Internet integration in Windows 98, Microsoft is simply providing more value for the product with no increase in price. Windows costs the same today as it did three years ago but Windows 98 is a huge leap over Windows 95. The problem with Windows 98 is one of perception: Aside from the IE integration, most of its new features are "under the hood" and not as sexy as the user interface was when Windows 95 first came out. But make no mistake: Windows 98 offers huge benefits over previous versions of Windows; Windows 2000 will go even further.

So my answer to this is no, I don't think Microsoft is guilty of anti-competitive practices. Sure, they've done some questionable things. But so has Apple, Sun, Netscape, Oracle, and other important companies in the industry. That Microsoft be forced to play by a different set of rules is an odd request for corporate discrimination. I do believe that Microsoft has a monopoly in the operating system and Office suite markets, however. This isn't illegal though. And improving their products does nothing to hurt consumers, just their competitors. It's like we're punishing them for being the ultimate American corporation. That's pretty perverse.

And, as Microsoft's lawyers have pointed out time and time again, the computer industry moves quickly. By the time the dust settles on this case, the industry will look little like it did in mid-1998. Since the trial began, Netscape was bought by America Online, Linux has risen into the public limelight as a viable competitor to Windows, and now Oracle and Sun have announced plans to bypass Windows on a "no-OS" database server. Microsoft may very well have a monopoly, but it would be short-lived if they didn't move quickly and decisively.

So let's give them chance that to compete and operate like any other corporation in this often-grand country of ours, free from interference from a meddling government. This first stage of the Microsoft trial will likely drag on into mid-January, but it doesn't have to: If the US government would just drop this expensive and ridiculous case, maybe it could get on with some of the more pressing problems this country faces right now.


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