Microsoft in Court: Cyber-Industry Comes of Age Microsoft Trial Opens Monday, the First Test Pitting the Government against America's Newest Industry
Paul Van Slambrouck, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 - and 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 laid 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 sector, a test of the applicability of traditional antitrust rules to the newest industry. 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 and offices. 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 - a 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. …