Judging Jackson by His Actions: Finding Facts Is Fine. but Going beyond Them Spells Trouble for Microsoft-And Its Rivals

By Levy, Steven | Newsweek, November 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Judging Jackson by His Actions: Finding Facts Is Fine. but Going beyond Them Spells Trouble for Microsoft-And Its Rivals


Levy, Steven, Newsweek


Just as Microsoft seems in denial about its past, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson appears to be in denial about its future. True, in his 207-page "Findings of Fact," the judge in the Microsoft antitrust suit compellingly verifies the government's key charge that the company overstepped its bounds in forcibly enlisting its captive business allies to defend its turf. (Microsoft insists its behavior was exemplary.) But not all of the judge's ruling deals in fact. Some of it is conjecture about how the computer marketplace will evolve over the next few years. And some of it, despite appeals-court warnings against judicial kibitzing on software design, consists of Judge Jackson's surprisingly confident views on what features do and do not belong in an operating system (OS).

Most strikingly, he contends that building Internet software into Windows was not only unnecessary but an overall detriment to users, because it sucks up computing resources and forces holdouts to the Web revolution to pay for something they don't want. In fact, he doesn't seem to think that browsing should ever be an integral part of an OS. The judge would have been on safer ground to simply state that Microsoft's massive effort to integrate the browser into Windows was originally launched more to snuff Netscape than benefit customers. But now that the Net seems poised to be fully meshed into our computing experiences and even in our daily lives, it makes sense for operating systems to handle some of the load. At the least, the matter is debatable--but should the decision-making process on this design issue be led by some gavel pounder who prefers fountain pens to WordPerfect?

Judge Jackson's predictions about the permanence of Microsoft's headlock on the software industry seem equally questionable. Clearly, Microsoft drew upon its operating systems' dynasty to trump Netscape's browser before the rival Navigator morphed into an alternative applications platform to Windows. But vanquishing Netscape does little to help Microsoft in the coming war of Internet-ready appliances, a conflict that seems to favor opponents not burdened with the legacy of Windows software. Despite Judge Jackson's assurances that America Online has no intentions of trying to push Microsoft off its lofty perch, it's more than likely that AOL will become a persistent counterforce to Microsoft's plans to keep ahead in century 21.

And how can Judge Jackson so blithely dismiss Linux, a free OS competing with Microsoft that has 15 million users? Wall Street doesn't: it's bestowed a multibillion-dollar valuation to Red Hat Software, a company that distributes Linux on a nonexclusive basis. Sure, it's a fact when the judge says, "Consumers have by and large shown little inclination to abandon Windows. …

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