Breaking up is hard to do

Is microsoft up to its old tricks by bundling so many apps with Windows XP? And if so, is that really the illegal part of the monopoly? Bill O'Brien makes some sense of the DOJ confusion.

If you're starting to get confused by the DOJ/Microsoft interplay, join the crowd. The facts as we know them are simple: Microsoft is a monopoly. It became a monopoly because its competition couldn't produce alternative software that was significantly better or, sometimes even equal, to what Microsoft offered for its Windows environment. (Of course, if you talk to some of the competition, you might hear grumblings about delayed information or not having the inside track on API functions, as Microsoft does.)

An antitrust suit was filed against Microsoft and, after some serious and some silly court time, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson officially declared Microsoft an illegal monopoly and Bill Gates was told to break up the company into two smaller, independent operating divisions. Microsoft appealed the decision. Although the illegal monopoly status wasn't dismissed, the case was remanded on appeal back to the lower court for a different remedy. The DOJ is not in favor of Microsoft being divided into mini-me sized bits, but it will seek penalties that could affect or even delay the release of Windows XP.

Now things begin to get hazy. Critics of Microsoft who'd been on a judicial fast during the appeal are back to a feeding frenzy. They claim that Microsoft is up to its old tricks again by bundling everything in the known universe with Windows XP and effectively shutting out the competition. Well, it is--at least the as far as the bundling part is concerned. But is that really the illegal part of the monopoly? The Justice Department also said that it would not pursue the bundling issues.

For those of us who actually care to remember, it wasn't just the inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows that brought 19 states to file suit against Microsoft. It was primarily the complaint that IE couldn't be removed so that another browser (Netscape) could be installed without the operating system crashing. Microsoft explained that everyone uses a browser so it was natural to include IE. As well, it said that IE provided valuable facilities to Windows. It initially denied that IE couldn't be uninstalled, at least until Bill Gates, sitting in front of the judge, crashed Windows while attempting to uninstall the browser.

There were only two things wrong with Microsoft's argument: Everyone uses word processors and spreadsheets, yet Microsoft wasn't giving away its Office Suite. And having an operating system depend on an application for some or all of its functions is just plain ridiculous. Everyone knows that applications depend on OS facilities--just ask Microsoft about the APIs it's spent years coercing, er, convincing the graphics industry to accept. You can't have it both ways in a sane world.

Post appeal, the issues are becoming clouded with arguments from Microsoft's critics over icon placement, links, and, once again, bundling. That's all just window dressing clouding the real issue, and we can't really afford to have the new judge, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, wondering where she wants to go today with this case. A guideline might be in order:

Microsoft should be allowed to include all of the free software it wants. The whole "Beware of geeks bearing gifts" thing has been entirely overplayed. However, the court mandate should be that all of the bundled software must be able to be removed and/or superceded by equivalent third-party software, without invoking even the tiniest of hiccups or blue screen of death from Windows XP. As well, there can be no contractual or technological repercussions should OEMs choose to do so. Non-invasive software bundles are a must. If we are to live with Microsoft, holding hands is fine. Having the company clinging to our backs will just send things back to divorce court again.

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