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Antitrust case stirs feelings for & against Microsoft

October 19, 1998
Web posted at 6:15 PM EDT

by Bob Trott


WASHINGTON (IDG) -- It's hard to find anyone who hasn't taken sides in the government's historic antitrust case against Microsoft, which got under way Monday, and virtually impossible to find someone in the high-tech industry who is impartial.

Microsoft goes on trial
Chairman Bill Gates and Microsoft -- which is accused of using its Windows domination to create other monopolies and unfairly quash its rivals -- are painted as a threat to the free market by opponents, or as victims of forces aligned against the free market, by supporters.

"I am delighted this trial has begun," Joel Klein, head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, said after Monday's hearing. "It's great for American consumers, [and] this case has always been about consumers." "In the weeks ahead, we will detail evidence showing that Microsoft's illegal deeds matched its illegal words and intentions," Klein said.

One woman who waited in line to see the afternoon session in U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's courtroom was pulling for the government. The retired government employee said she hoped that the U.S. Department of Justice would win the case and "curtail Gates' efforts."

Her thoughts were echoed by the Consumer Project on Technology, the watchdog organization headed by consume advocate Ralph Nader, which put out a statement insisting that "consumers will benefit if Microsoft is reigned in by the government."

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"If successful and if not restrained by the government, Microsoft would exercise an astonishing degree of control over electronic commerce and the next generation of Internet-based multimedia applications," the organization said in a statement from director James Love.

In fact, Love said, the government's case was too narrow, and since it likely will be tied up in appeals for years no matter who wins, he urged the European Commission and other overseas antitrust authorities to step up their efforts against Microsoft.

A representative for the Computer and Communications Association (CCIA), an industry group that includes Sun Microsystems and other Microsoft foes, said after the hearing that the Justice Department had made a strong opening case that "Microsoft consistently chose not to fundamentally compete on merit."

"One of the hardest things to prove in antitrust is intent," the CCIA's Ed Black said. "The Justice Department had a powerful opening."

On the other hand, the Technology Access Action Coalition (TAAC) -- headed by the former head of Vanstar, a Microsoft ally -- called the government's case a threat to the free enterprise system.

"It is not, and should not, be illegal for a company to be innovative, creative, and competitive," said TAAC Chairman Jay Amato. "That spirit built this country and it would be devastating to the economy and to the psyche of this country to learn that we are no longer a nation of inventors, explorers, and researchers. Instead, we would be telling the world that we no longer care about the free market or about our position as the global leader in technology."

The Justice Department's opening statement was old news to William Neukom, Microsoft's chief lawyer, who said prosecutors had no proof that Microsoft's business practices "even approach" anti-competitive behavior.

"There was nothing that the government hasn't been saying for months and weeks," Neukom said.

Bob Trott is InfoWorld's Seattle-based senior editor. Additional reporting by Editor at Large Cara Cunningham.

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