As the federal government opens its antitrust suit Monday against
Microsoft, the corporate titan of our time, America is watching and
wondering whether the outcome will clip the wings of innovation -
ultimately force big changes in its computer habits.
While its outcome has national import, its resonance with the
public comes first and foremost from a basic fact: It's personal.
"Lots of people have a personal stake because they use this
stuff," says Bryan Ford, an antitrust expert at Santa Clara
University in the heart of California's Silicon Valley.
The suit was considered historic when it was filed five months
ago, and its potential ramifications have only grown since then, say
analysts who have followed the case closely.
That's because, both sides argue, its outcome will either stoke or
stymie technological innovation, in many respects the goose that
the golden egg of the past six years of US economic expansion and an
ingredient even more prized now that the economy is wobbling.
In addition, the case is seen as the first full-fledged wrestling
match between government and a mature and powerful technology
a test of the applicability of traditional antitrust rules to the
Beyond its macro significance, the trial scheduled to begin
Monday is virtually guaranteed a close public following because,
like it or not, Microsoft is a common companion in American homes
Microsoft operating systems, such as Windows 95 and 98, run almost
90 percent of computers in use today, precisely the reason the
computer giant has drawn scrutiny from the federal government.
The suit started as an attack on Microsoft's sales strategy of
including its Internet browser software with its operating system -
move Microsoft calls top-notch innovation and its critics call
predatory. But the aim of the suit has clearly expanded.
Recently, the government and the 20 states joining in the legal
action threatened to seek broader remedies once in court, beyond the
bundling issue. Though those remedies are unspecified, they could
include breakup of the company.
The gist of the initial complaint was that Microsoft engaged in
anticompetitive practices by leveraging its dominance of the
operating-system market into greater control over browsers, software
that helps computer users navigate the World Wide Web.
Microsoft, the government alleges, tried to crush Netscape
Communications Corp. of Mountain View, Calif. - once the dominant
player in the browser market - by tying the Microsoft browser to its
operating system at no extra cost to consumers.
Blow to government's case
But on the way to the courthouse, a separate judicial ruling blew
holes in the browser argument. …