US Report: DoJ widens Microsoft probe

The Justice Department is expanding its probe into Microsoft, according to people familiar with the government's thinking.

The sources said investigators are gathering information about the company's business practices in order to lay the groundwork for another antitrust lawsuit against the software maker. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined comment. But one knowledgeable government official said the DoJ was looking "at other Microsoft issues that are unrelated to the current case."

In the antitrust lawsuit, slated to go to trial next month, the government contends Microsoft bundled its Internet Explorer browser into the Windows 95 and Windows 98 systems to maintain its dominance and crush the challenge from Netscape Communications. The Justice Department declined comment.

But sources said the government has decided to widen the scope of its investigation beyond the confines of the so-called browser war between Netscape and Microsoft. Again, the spotlight will be on whether Microsoft illegally ties products, according to the sources. They say the government is examining allegations that Microsoft tied its monopoly over desktop operating systems to promote the use of Windows NT and the BackOffice suite of network applications. In addition, they want to know whether Microsoft attempted to snuff out competition posed by the Java programming environment. Last autumn, Sun Microsystems filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the software maker in connection with Java. In its lawsuit, Sun charged that Microsoft was attempting to balkanise the Java standard into different versions.

The government also wants to know more about Microsoft's move into streaming media. Last week, Real Networks' chief executive testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Microsoft had rigged its streaming media product to disable a competing piece of software sold by Real Networks. CEO Rob Glaser said Microsoft's product disables his company's application, called Real Player, when both are installed on the same system. "They're doing the same thing that they did with the desktop and the Internet," said a source. "They're tying products together - technically and contractually."

Another source said the government had originally wanted to include some of these broader areas of investigation into the antitrust suit that was filed earlier this summer. "That was the initial hope but the court set a rapid schedule and set in play a new dynamic," said the source. "If they do bring another lawsuit, the Department probably won't do it until they get through with the later rounds of the current trial." None of the sources was able to gauge with any precision when the Justice Department might bring another lawsuit.

A spokesman for Microsoft said the company could not speculate "on what the government may or may not be considering." "We're confident that once all the facts are reviewed that any reasonable observer would conclude that Microsoft's actions are legal," said the spokesman.