Even Giants Need Rules

Microsoft clearly has a point. The merger between America Online and Netscape amply demonstrates the dynamic state of the high-tech industry. This new combo is likely to give Bill Gates and colleagues a furious run for their money in the rush to Internet commerce.

But that doesn't mean the government's antitrust case against Microsoft ought to be dismissed as irrelevant. Rules of fair competition protect the public, and they should apply in the high-tech realm as elsewhere. The government's suit serves that purpose.

The evidence of past Microsoft strong-arm tactics, as it wielded the monopolistic clout of its Windows operating system, remains compelling. The "software giant," as Microsoft is now universally tagged, turned the screws on Netscape's popular Web browser, Navigator, by distributing its own browser free along with the ubiquitous Windows.

But Netscape was a willing "Jack" to tackle Microsoft's giant. It eventually took a pounding in the browser market, but has found another way to get the golden eggs - through joining forces with the dominant force in popularizing the Internet.

AOL's vast reach as the largest online service meshes with Netscape's technical know-how and business markets. A third partner, Sun Microsystems, adds further technological and sales muscle.

This trio is aiming, as is Microsoft, at a future that's just around the corner, when Internet access will be as universal as television now is. Today's fledgling "e-commerce" will then soar into the trillions of dollars.

The AOL-Netscape linkage leaves little doubt that competition is alive and well in cyberspace. It should temper judicial judgment about appropriate sanctions, should the verdict go against Microsoft. No need to break up the giant even as other giants take shape.

But a judgment that reaffirms the public's interest in monitoring, and occasionally stepping into, this new realm of commerce would be useful.

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