Opinion: One cheer for the DOJ

The US Department of Justice's Victory over Microsoft regarding the proposed bundling of Internet Explorer 4.0 with the Windows 95 operating system is worthy of at least one cheer.

Of course it is good for competition (which let's be honest is spelt N-E-T-S-C-A-P-E) that hardware vendors aren't forced to provide diskspace for Internet Explorer if they perchance would like to preinstall Windows 95 on their machines.

Normally, this being the computer business, by the time the court case is finally settled by the Supreme Court or by the Archangel Gabriel on Judgement Day, whichever comes first, the technology will have moved on to the extent that its obsolete, rather like a court today deciding firmly who built the Pyramids. However, the nature of this ruling is likely to add a sense of urgency to Microsoft's urge to overturn it.

Although the Court Order preventing Microsoft's intention to force OEMs to bundle IE 4.0 was only going to come into effect from February a fly the size of a 747 has just landed splat in Microsoft's ointment. A pivotal technology in the forthcoming Windows 98 is the Active Desktop which treats everything as though it were in a web browser window. The interim judgement states that Microsoft shall "desist from the practice of licensing the use of any Microsoft personal computer operating system software (including Windows 95 or any successor version thereof) on the condition...that the licensee also license and preinstall any Microsoft Internet browser software (including Internet Explorer 3.0, 4.0, or any successor versions thereof)". If upheld at a later date, this prevents Microsoft's strategy of the Operating-System-As-Browser from ever happening.

Not that Redmond was entirely routed. The Judge decided that Microsoft's interpretation of the 1995 agreement had some merit and threw out the DOJ's demand of $1 million a day fine (the kind of money that Bill Gates earns in his lunch hour), so the nightmare scenario where Microsoft emerges unchastened and even stronger is still possible.

Nevertheless, after years of avoiding having to take serious notice of the courts, Microsoft today will finally be aware of the extent to which it will be allowed to use its monopoly position. That is good news for everyone who uses personal computers.

For those who want to see competition in the browser market there is a special reason to cheer today. But the folks at Netscape should keep the champagne on ice for a while longer yet.