How Microsoft Got Itself Into Hot Water. Again.

"Kiss my rosy red [expletive deleted], you fool!" You're a professional basketball player. You're whistled for a foul. And that's what you say to the referee.

Suppose he'd keep a closer eye on you for the rest of the game? Sure he would. Referees are human too. And they don't like players who hurl insults.

Microsoft finds itself in exactly that position today, as the U.S. Department of Justice expands its antitrust probe. The DOJ is now looking into Microsoft's attempts to wrest control of Java from Sun Microsystems. This intensified scrutiny is the result, at least in part, of the way Microsoft has taunted the DOJ. Here's what's going on:

Microsoft must control standards to prosper. Microsoft builds standard platforms (first DOS, then Windows). It recruits hardware and software people to build great products. Because of all the great products, consumers flock to that platform. Microsoft wins.

Sun threatened Microsoft's key standard. Sun hyped Java as a way to replace Windows. Write for Java, Sun said, and your programs will run on Windows and on any other platform. Write once, run anywhere, was the promise.

Microsoft shanghaied Java and created its own version. As I warned you more than a year ago, Microsoft is attempting to kidnap Sun's baby and raise it as its own. By creating a Windows-centric version of Java, Microsoft can prevent Sun from keeping the write once, run anywhere promise.

Microsoft's strategy is so successful that it has the whole Java camp bickering over what to do, the old divide-and-conquer ploy.

So far, the DOJ hasn't whistled another foul. But it is shadowing Microsoft, waiting to catch a mistake. I hate to see that happen. For one thing, it distracts the DOJ from watchdogging Intel, the company that really threatens computer consumers. For another, it will slowly, surely, sap at Microsoft's competitiveness and energy. And we need Microsoft at the top of its game to lead the industry.

But hey, when you sneer at the referee, when you call him stupid so everyone else can hear, you bring these things on. Microsoft may have some of the brightest engineers in the world, but when it comes to diplomacy and discretion, this company is still playing second string.

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