Microsoft's ever-in-the-news chairman was again the object of attention on Thursday afternoon, and not because of the launch earlier in the day of Windows 2000, the anticipated upgrade to the company's powerful network operating system. Rather, Gates was quoted as saying that Microsoft was ready to compromise on a key issue and settle its antitrust lawsuit with the government.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Thursday, Gates was quoted as saying the software giant would be willing to open the Windows OS source code to competitors in order to settle the lawsuit brought by the US Justice Department. Or was he? "Bill did not comment in any way on the mediation process or any settlement proposals," said company spokesman Jim Cullinan.
Meanwhile, the news wires crackled as observers attempted to deconstruct his statement. The only point made clear was that nobody outside of Microsoft's chairman really knew whether it signaled a break in the legal logjam. "Just because he says he's interested, doesn't indicate he's ready to make a deal," said Stephen Houck, a New York antitrust lawyer, who was the lead counsel for the 19 states during the course of the antitrust trial. "Making the source code available has a lot of theoretical appeal, but they would have to do a lot of work to make sure it's a viable package that would interest potential competitors."
Last May, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer (now also chief executive) said that the company had not ruled out making at least part of the Windows source code available for the public domain. At the time, Microsoft was under pressure to react to the growing momentum of Linux. But there's been no movement on that count since then.
As a rule, company executives have strenuously resisted suggestions that Microsoft should put what are, essentially, its crown jewels into the public domain.
This latest flurry of activity has occurred less than a week before Microsoft and the government are set to present final arguments before US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in Washington, DC. The two sides have been meeting separately with a court-appointed mediator, US Circuit Judge, Richard Posner. Neither Microsoft, nor the government, has commented on the substance of the talks. However, sources familiar with the deliberations say the negotiations have gone slowly, and that Posner has remained unable to bridge the gap between the sides.
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