The Microsoft Case

They tried for a few days, but the software giant and the antitrust titans found no basis for compromise. Thus the United States Justice Department and the attorneys general of 20 states forged ahead with lawsuits against the Microsoft Corporation.

As the suits were filed, US Attorney General Janet Reno asserted that the company's practices "restricted the choices available for consumers in America and around the world."

Those practices include the bundling of key software products with Microsoft's Windows operating system, which runs 90 percent of personal computers around the world. They also include Microsoft's ability to dictate the options displayed for computer users when they boot up Windows 95, or the new Windows 98.

Control of this "desktop" screen allows a company to determine its customers access to electronic commerce, whether the product is a Web browser or any of the multitude of Internet shopping services now sprouting up.

Microsoft argues that it's just doing what all hard-driving companies do: constantly improving its product in order to win new customers. Microsoft also pleads that it is just another player - granted, a very big one - in the most competitive industry in the world, where new products and companies pop up constantly.

That is true. But antitrust watchdogs would counter that they want to ensure the high-tech arena remains vigorously competitive. If one company controls the crucial gateway - the operating system - and uses that control to extend its monopoly to other products, a line has been crossed. The public is denied the full benefits of creative software-writing everywhere - not just in Microsoft's offices.

We're not sure it has come to that yet - or that it's likely to. The software field has a vitality that defies simple comparison to industrial monopolies of the past. Beyond that, more and more computer users have the know-how to gather all kinds of options at their fingertips, regardless of what Microsoft or any other manufacturer hopes they'll choose.

But there's no question Microsoft has a lock on a pivotal piece of the software galaxy. Windows is the industry standard, and it's likely to remain so for a long time. To that degree, everyone has to play by Microsoft's rules.

Do those rules include contractual arrangements that stifle competition? To the extent the rules include detailed, in-house knowledge of how Windows works, are competitors being denied full access to the game?

Those are fair questions. Government regulators are certainly within their mandates of public service to raise them. However the antitrust litigation plays out, the outcome of the current controversy ought to be expanded room for information-age innovation.

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