Has Technology Left the Microsoft Case Behind?

According to published reports, state and federal officials are bickering over what remedies should be applied in the Microsoft antitrust case.

Sources close to the case say the only thing parties to the negotiations seem able to agree upon is that breaking up Microsoft is no longer a viable option.

Nonetheless, time is running out for officials to come up with a compromise proposal, since Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson told both sides that he wants to complete the penalty phase of the case within 60 days of his April 3rd ruling. At that time, the court found Microsoft in wide violation of state and federal antitrust laws.

One Proposal More Effective

Judge Jackson has said that he would be willing to accept one proposal from the states and another from the Feds, but most observers feel that a single proposal would be more effective against a tough Microsoft legal team.

Even though a Microsoft breakup is apparently no longer an option, other draconian remedies remain on the table.

For instance, a few attorneys general want to fence in Microsoft’s $17.8-billion (US$) cash reserves, which would prevent the software giant from buying out other companies and folding their applications into the Windows operating system.

Others want to force Microsoft into spinning off its Internet Explorer, creating a separate Web browser. Today, 90 percent of all PCs are sold with the browser installed.

Another idea floated by some government officials is to force Microsoft into making its Office suite of applications compatible with other operating systems. This remedy would supposedly allow other systems to be more competitive.

Fencing in Reserves Not Realistic

While the reasoning behind such proposals might make sense to government officials, I find the proposed remedies uninformed — in fact, laughable.

For example, the idea of controlling Microsoft’s cash reserves would be very unpopular with its millions of stockholders and make for a juicy political rallying cry in the upcoming presidential election.

Additionally, the concept of spinning Microsoft’s Web browser into a separate company to revive competition is an outdated notion. Some analysts believe America Online will give Microsoft a run for its money with the new version of AOL’s Netscape browser — especially since AOL commands a captive audience of 22 million or so.

As for Microsoft making its Office suite compatible with Linux, forget about it. Obviously, the attorneys general are not aware that Sun Microsystems has already followed that path with its own office suite — which is free.

Out of Sync with Technology

Ultimately, what seems apparent is that the high-profile legal case has become a kind of Rip Van Winkle. While the company’s melodrama dragged on and on, time — and technology — marched by. All of the proposals being offered by the wrangling public officials are based on an understanding of technology that is already obsolete.

No wonder Microsoft decided not to settle, and chose instead to take its chances in court.

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