Consumers: Don't hold your breath

Computer users shouldn't expect much change in the products or choices they have, at least anytime soon, as a result of Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's scathing antitrust ruling Friday

But if the antitrust action results in Microsoft becoming less predatory and more innovative, consumers could see benefits in the future from a more competitive industry, analysts said Sunday.

With Windows-based PC prices closing in on the $500(£300) mark, it's unlikely that people will chose the higher-priced Macintosh or difficult-to-install Linux simply because a federal judge ruled Microsoft an abusive monopolist.

While government attorneys are declaring Friday's ruling a victory for consumers -- and Microsoft is saying it could stifle innovation -- industry watchers said the decision's affect on the market in the immediate future will be nil.

"When it comes down to buying computers this Christmas, they're going to buy Windows-based PCs," said Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst who's president of Creative Strategies.

That's because consumers don't really have choice when it comes to the operating system installed on their PCs. More than 90 percent of the machines come with Windows, whether the consumer likes it or not. And Bajarin said that trend should continue even as the case wends its way through court.

"There is a public perception that this is a black eye for the company," Bajarin said. "But they're still a freight train moving forward."

Indeed, one analyst said that Microsoft is better when under pressure. "Now they just have to innovate for a living. And we're all better when they do that," said Kimball Brown, an analyst at Dataquest in San Jose.

Brown noted that Microsoft's code writers responded impressively when the company was threatened by Netscape in 1995. "They started writing great code."

He expects, for example, to see the company respond in kind to the threat of information appliances -- simple computers that in some cases do not rely on Microsoft operating systems and applications. As long as the court case looms over Microsoft, "they can't strong-arm these guys ... they're going to have to innovate," Brown said.

In general, however, it's too soon to tell how the case will affect computer and software buyers because Friday's ruling is only the first of several major decisions to come. And an appeal could stretch out a conclusion for years. The judge still must decide whether Microsoft violated specific tenets of antitrust law. And if it did, he must decide on remedies, which potentially range from checking specific behaviors to breaking up the company. Along the way, both sides can appeal the decisions to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a court that's been friendlier to Microsoft than the Department of Justice so far.

Brown thinks Microsoft has already changed its practices, and that's helped the industry and consumers. "(Microsoft is) fighting tooth and nail to not look like monopolists. That's all that needs to happen."

His biggest concern: That the courts may eventually inflict a substantial penalty on the company. "If Microsoft blows up, the whole tech rally really blows up. The industry needs Microsoft. All it needs is for Microsoft just to be blunted, and this does that."

Meanwhile, despite the anti-Microsoft sentiment that has surfaced in some circles as a result of the trial, don't expect Santa to bring consumers a boatload of alternative operating systems.

So, far the backlash has manifested itself in relatively few tangible ways among consumers. Some have tried to rally support among Linux fans through events such as Windows refund day. And protesters succeeded in convincing the California State University system to drop a proposed partnership with Microsoft, citing the case and fearing it would lock the colleges into using only Windows software.

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