Microsoft browser toots own horn in federal case

Personal Computers

January 12, 1998|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

ONE OF THE oddest aspects of the Justice Department's case regarding the Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer is the way the product can speak for itself. It will probably not testify in its own defense in a court of law, but it can deliver serious propaganda in the court of public opinion, as my wife discovered over the holidays when she accidentally clicked the browser's "Microsoft" button and was treated to the headline "DOJ's Request for New Court Order Shows Internet Explorer is Integrated."

That particular phrasing was, to say the least, a great leap of interpretation. The entry went on to say more matter-of-factly, "In court papers filed Dec. 23, Microsoft says Internet Explorer is an integrated feature of the Windows 95 operating system, contrary to what the DOJ has been saying for the last two months." Links to "what others are saying" led to quotations from folks who were saying nice things about Microsoft and mean things about the government. But it did not mention the several trade publications whose experts referred to Microsoft's contentions with phrases such as "that claim appears to be wrong" (in Cnet) and "Microsoft misspoke" (in PC Week).

Netscape Communications Corp. is hardly silent. Its default home page implores you to "make Netscape Communicator your default Internet software, and, if you choose, uninstall Internet Explorer." The government has not yet offered a Justice Seeker browser of its own to provide one-button access to its perspective, but at least Netscape and Microsoft let you change their home page and buttons to eliminate their corporate cheerleading.

The case hinges on the following clause from a consent decree with the government that Microsoft agreed to in 1994: "Microsoft shall not enter into any license agreement in which the terms of that agreement are expressly or impliedly conditioned upon: (1) the licensing of any other covered product, operating system software product or other product (provided, however, that this provision in and of itself shall not be construed to prohibit Microsoft from developing integrated products); (2) the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) not licensing, purchasing, using or distributing any non-Microsoft product."

The second part, which prohibits Microsoft from making exclusive deals with computer makers, is important because Netscape is not bound by such restrictions. By admittedly forcing manufacturers to include Internet Explorer on every Windows machine sold, Microsoft precluded Netscape from making exclusive deals of its own. If Explorer had not been installed on every machine, Netscape might well have paid computer makers to include its browser and leave Microsoft's out.

Even though you can uninstall Explorer, and even though retail versions of Windows 95 include it only on a separate disk that must be installed separately, Microsoft now says that Internet Explorer is an "integrated product" and that it, therefore, is exempt from the terms of the decree.

To bolster its case, Microsoft says that removing Internet Explorer from new Windows 95 machines will "break" software like America Online's. But that turns out to be true only for certain programs that are included on a new machine's hard drive and that rely on Microsoft's licensing practices to guarantee that the Explorer files they need will be there.

After Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of U.S. District Court required Microsoft to offer computer makers a version of Windows 95 without Explorer, the company disingenuously chose to interpret his order as demanding that every last file it ships with the retail edition of Explorer be stripped from the browser-less version of Windows 95. The catch is that some of those files are revised versions of essential program code required by Windows and application programs.

When the retail edition of Explorer is installed, those files merely overwrite older versions already on the machine's hard drive. It is no surprise that removing them entirely causes major problems. As a feckless alternative, Microsoft offers computer makers the version of Windows 95 it still sells at retail, which has many known defects and lacks several features supporting current hardware.

Microsoft's publicity machine continues to muddy the waters by confusing "Internet-related features" with a full-blown browser and complaining of government meddling with "rapid innovation." But it seems reasonable that once a consent decree is signed, the government should be expected to enforce it.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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