Microsoft unable to shake witness Computer-science expert calls browser unessential to operating system

Antitrust

December 09, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A lawyer for Microsoft Corp. failed yesterday to shake a computer-science expert from his argument that Internet software should not be included as part of Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Central to the government's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft is the charge that the company bundled Internet browser software with Windows largely as a tactic to put competitors at a disadvantage.

"In general, designers have a huge amount of flexibility in how to package these files, the same way you have a large amount of flexibility in how you put things in a grocery bag, as long as you don't crush stuff," said David Farber, a senior computer-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is a government witness. "Software is infinitely malleable."

Microsoft lawyer Steven Holley contended that -- no matter how all those files got into Windows -- outside software developers now depend on them when they write programs for Windows.

To that, Farber countered that "there is no absolute efficiency given just because this is the way Microsoft has chosen to put all of this together."

Toward the end of the day, Holley got down to the level of individual program files. He displayed a large poster listing 13 major files that testimony had shown are invoked when a computer user seeks an Internet address using Internet Explorer, Microsoft's browser.

Then he asked Farber if each file could be deleted without damaging Windows. When the witness answered no to the first two, Holley pasted large red "no" stickers to the board, to reinforce Microsoft's argument that Explorer is an inseparable, integrated element of Windows.

The theatrics fizzled, though, when Farber told him that the questions made no sense. Several files in question, he said, were key parts of the operating system invoked by all sorts of programs, not just Explorer.

By asking those questions, Farber told Holley: "You're asking me if I've stopped beating my wife."

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson showed interest in the discussion of individual computer files. He heard similar testimony last year, when he was deciding on the government's request for an order barring Microsoft from bundling Internet Explorer with Windows 95. Jackson had ordered Microsoft to offer Windows 95 in a form that does not trumpet access to Explorer. But a Court of Appeals panel overturned his ruling.

When the discussion yesterday turned to one file used by Windows and Explorer, the judge interrupted Holley to ask the witness, "If that code were part of Windows, is there any reason that Internet Explorer, as an application, could not invoke it?"

No, there was no reason, Farber answered. The very question troubled Microsoft executives, who have labored to convince Jackson that Internet Explorer is not a stand-alone application and never has been.

Holley later asked Farber about a section from the appellate court ruling, which is central to Microsoft's defense. The panel ruled that it would be "absurdly inefficient" to require consumers to stitch computer code together, a possible result if Explorer were removed from Windows.

Farber mumbled for a moment, suggesting that he had trouble with the appellate court's language, but then explained, "I don't want to criticize the court."

To that, Jackson smiled and said, "Oh, go ahead."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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