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Microsoft, Internet provider scrap over error message

July 8, 1998
Web posted at: 1:42 PM EDT (1342 GMT)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An angry Internet service provider based in Canada said Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows 98 software appeared to suggest some of his customers should go elsewhere.

The suggestion popped up in several error messages on the customers' computer screens, the pesky boxes that flash on to a screen when something is not quite right.

"You might want to try selecting 'other Internet provider' from the list of Internet service providers," one of the messages said in part.

That and similar error messages showed up for some users who tried to publish Web pages they had composed with Microsoft's Front Page Express, which comes with the Windows 98 operating system software that went on sale late last month.

Microsoft said the confusing error messages were an innocent mistake and would be changed. But in a climate of suspicion about the motives and tactics of the highly successful software maker, some critics were doubtful.

"Microsoft will absolutely issue an update to the (software) to fix the error message in question," Priscilla Mistele, Microsoft's product manager for Front Page, said in an e-mail to Reuters received Tuesday.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch last month issued a report that accused Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and its top lawyer, William Neukom, of making statements to his committee that were "simply false."

A few days before that, the Software Publishers Association issued a report accusing Microsoft of trying to build a software monopoly in servers, the machines that run computer networks and link users to the Internet, with Microsoft's Windows NT operating system.

Perhaps most important, the Justice Department and 20 states filed a lawsuit last spring charging Microsoft had a monopoly in personal computer operating system software and used unfair tactics against competitors.

Hatch, a Utah Republican, said Tuesday that his concerns about the Redmond, Wash.-based company extended to its investments in cable television. Hatch said he was worried Microsoft may be trying to extend its dominance in PC operating systems to new cable technologies that provide Internet access.

Meanwhile, Shiloh Costa, the senior system administrator for MDI Internet Inc., a Vancouver, British Columbia, Internet service provider, has started getting phone calls from disgruntled customers.

The customers had used Front Page Express, which is part of Internet Explorer 4.0, the Web browser in Windows 98, to compose Web pages. When they tried to publish the pages they got the error messages.

As it turns out, the messages do not actually mean customers should choose another Internet service provider, such as Microsoft's own MSN service. Instead, they mean customers should use a different way to load their Web pages, according to Microsoft and Costa.

But Costa said the error messages "just totally confuse your customers into believing there's got to be something wrong with your company and to choose a different one. It's as simple as that."

Costa said he was troubled because in order to prevent the messages Internet service providers must install Microsoft software that supports special, non-standard features in Front Page.

What that boils down to, he said, is that "we're being strong-armed into supporting the Front Page (software upgrades) whether we like to or not" to keep customers.

He sees it as one small step in Microsoft's effort to get him to replace the free Unix-based software that runs his system with the expensive Microsoft software for network operations.

Microsoft executives say the error messages were an unfortunate mistake.

"The error message is incorrect," Mistele said in a telephone interview late on Monday. "It was in no way a deliberate action by Microsoft."

But Ken Wasch, president of the Software Publishers Association, said that remained an open question.

"What better way to force Internet service providers to adopt Microsoft proprietary technology than through error messages on the desktop?" he said.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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