Microsoft on Trial

Within the computer industry, Microsoft Corp. is often regarded as a bully. Not many tears are shed when it gets into trouble with the United States Department of Justice on antitrust matters.

Right now Microsoft is embroiled in a showdown with the Justice Department over the software giant's potential dominance of the Internet - that vast network of computers providing computer users with reams of information and countless Web sites to explore.

On Dec. 11, US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued a preliminary injunction ordering Microsoft to quit requiring computermakers to distribute its Internet Explorer browser program as a condition of installing the popular Windows operating system software on their personal computers.

That requirement threatens the browser competition, especially Netscape Navigator.

A browser is a program that enables personal computers to search the Internet and call up Web sites.

Judge Jackson's ruling resulted from a Justice Department lawsuit contending Microsoft violated a 1995 court order aimed at preventing anticompetitive practices. Justice lawyers sought a $1 million-a-day fine if the firm didn't obey a contempt finding.

Microsoft has appealed Jackson's injunction. It argues it is in "full compliance" already with the order. But Microsoft said computermakers would have to use an old version of Windows without the browser. Or they could remove the browser from more recent versions of Windows 95, but then Windows wouldn't work.

Last week, Microsoft filed papers with the court saying that the Department of Justice was saying it should be held in contempt "for doing precisely what the DOJ requested and what the court ordered."

Well, the battle gets more complex than that. But at the heart of the issue is whether Microsoft is abusing its monopolistic power as the provider of the basic operating system for PCs.

We think it probably is.

Prices of chips and other computer hardware keep falling dramatically. But prices for Microsoft's programs remain relatively high. That's because PC makers basically must buy its operating program. They have no choice if they want to stay in business.

So Microsoft can keep adding feature after feature to its programs. In one sense, those additions justify the program's high cost. But computer- makers are stuck with those features, whether or not they want them. Consumers then pay for the extras.

Trying to get Microsoft to drop a feature is "like arguing with God," one industry expert said.

Compared to other software firms, Microsoft has an unfair advantage in the competition for business.

We hope the Justice Department sticks to its guns.

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