Microsoft returns to federal court Monday hoping to put its antitrust battles behind it, while critics of the software giant will argue that its monopoly power is stronger than ever and needs to be curbed.
This time, Microsoft is squaring off against only nine US states and the District of Columbia, after a settlement reached last year with the US Justice Department and nine other states to drop the case.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is still considering whether to accept the settlement announced in November, but in the meantime will hear the arguments of the nine "non-settling states" for tougher sanctions in a trial that could last six to eight weeks.
In the settlement, Microsoft agreed to change certain business practices, such as giving PC makers more flexibility in configuring their "desktops" to allow more rival software to be displayed.
But critics contend that the settlement does nothing to stop Microsoft from "bundling" more software into its Windows operating system to crush rivals that make Internet browsers, media players or other software sometimes called "middleware."
ProComp, a high-tech group allied with Microsoft rivals, claims the settlement "fails to address Microsoft's illegal predatory practices" and does not meet key remedy requirements of the appellate court, which affirmed a lower court ruling that Microsoft abused its monopoly position.
The settlement "is so ineffective in controlling Microsoft that it might as well have been written by Microsoft itself," said Robert Bork, a former federal judge who wrote a brief for ProComp.
The states are proposing a more stringent remedy for Microsoft -- including a requirement to offer a "modular" version of Windows that allows PC makers or users to plug in different programs by Microsoft rivals on equal terms.
However the pro-Microsoft Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) said its study concludes that the tough remedy would "Balkanize" the Windows system, and end up costing consumers and software developers US$80 billion.
"The states' remedy is all pain and no gain," said ACT president Jonathan Zuck. "It does nothing to achieve their professed goal of facilitating operating system competition, but will drive small software developers out of business through billions of dollars in unnecessary costs."
Microsoft is arguing said it would have to pull Windows XP off the market and be unable to develop new systems if tougher antitrust sanctions are granted.
In a deposition, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said the task of "unbundling" Windows would not be feasible and would ending up harming the system and creating confusion among users.
"I don't think you can build this system," he said. "If you pull the piece out, the only way you're going to get it to run is to have another piece that works exactly like it, and this is for an infinite number of pieces."
Having various versions of Windows, said Ballmer, "destroys the value to the consumer of Windows, because no longer can the consumer depend on it to do anything, and ... it destroys any notion we have of an economic return on the investment we put into Windows."
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who represents one of the states still pursuing the case, accused Microsoft of using "overblown rhetoric and apocalyptic predictions" aimed at averting tougher sanctions.
What is unclear is whether the judge could accept last year's settlement and then be able to consider stiffer sanctions sought by the non-settling states.
But even if Microsoft prevails with the judge, it still faces separate lawsuits for massive damages from rivals including Sun Microsystems and America Online, as well as a competition probe by the European Union.
(China Daily March 18, 2002)