It is the best of times, it is the worst of times for Microsoft. On the one hand, the computer giant used a much-hyped photo-op to transfer the "gold," or final, version of its new operating system, Windows XP, to computermakers last Friday. Plans are to launch XP on Oct. 25. And on Monday, it started to offer free downloads of the latest version of its Internet Explorer browser, IE 6.0.
On the other hand, Microsoft's attempts to delay or ignore the eight separate antitrust violations against it - upheld by a recent court-of-appeals ruling - have gone for naught.
Last Friday, the federal court randomly assigned Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to preside over the Microsoft case, and then assigned the case back to the trial court so that Judge Kollar-Kotelly could start the penalty phase of the trial. She will also retry the issue of bundling (Was it illegal for Microsoft to tie its IE browser to its Windows 95 and 98 operating systems?)
Meanwhile, howls of protest have greeted the launch of IE 6.0. The new browser will not automatically support the Java programming language - used by many websites - or Netscape-style plug-ins, which will most immediately affect people who use Apple's QuickTime video/audio player.
The launch of XP could also play right into the government's case against Microsoft. Some experts say that the integration of Windows Media Player and Windows Messenger into XP - in much the same way that Microsoft integrated IE into the older operating systems in an attempt to run its competitor Netscape out of the market - will give the government ammunition to show that Microsoft continues to engage in antitrust actions. It seems to bolster the argument that Microsoft has decided to stick its finger in the eye of the trial court and dare it to do something.
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to view Microsoft's behavior in any other way. Take, for example, the recent news that Microsoft paid a company to manufacture a "public" campaign in support of Microsoft and against the government. If that news weren't bad enough, it seems that several dead people signed the petition. Microsoft tried to dismiss the whole incident by pointing fingers at the tactics of its opposition, but the story became the latest black mark on the company's much-sullied reputation.
It's a dangerous game that Microsoft has decided to play. It knows that the government will not seek an injunction against the release of XP, because Wall Street and the technology industry have convinced themselves that XP will provide the remedy to that industry's economic doldrums (which is an interesting assumption at a time when people seem to be scaling back on technology purchases and using old equipment longer). Yet by incorporating many of its old tactics and methods into the launch and promotion of XP, the company leaves itself wide open for a full broadside in the next phase of the antitrust trial.
Perhaps Microsoft thinks the court won't notice that it has basically ignored the antitrust findings against it. If that's true, in a few months it will probably be wishing it hadn't.