Microsoft CEO Bill Gates narrowly emerged as the winner from lastrosoft matter. Dominique Deckmyn reports. week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which pitted him against adversaries Scott McNealy of Sun and Jim Barksdale of Netscape.
Few additional facts emerged from the hearing, and Gates offered a spirited defence while remaining co-operative. The Microsoft guru was helped by the last-minute addition to the panel of supporters Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Doug Burgum of Great Plains Software and independent industry analyst Stewart Alsop.
McNealy and Barksdale asked that the Senate Judiciary Committee urge the Department of Justice (DoJ) to bring a broad antitrust case against Microsoft for abusing its monopoly of the desktop software market. This would go further than the current DoJ case, which is limited to whether or not Microsoft has violated the 1995 Consent Decree.
Most of the questions asked centred around Microsoft's plans for the internet, and the precise nature of its contracts with OEMs, ISPs and internet content providers. Barely any mention was made of other issues, such as the way Microsoft has leveraged its operating system dominance to control the Windows application market.
The intricate links between Microsoft's applications and operating system divisions may be of great concern to the software industry, but it is the internet that has caught public and senatorial attention.
This was probably an advantage to Microsoft. The issue concerning the Internet Explorer browser - whether Microsoft's licensing agreements are exclusionary - may appear to be more straightforward than discussions of OS programming interfaces. But it is also relatively easy to address - as was proved by Microsoft's last-minute decision to change its ISP contracts.
Microsoft changed contracts to allow partner ISPs to advertise the competing Netscape Navigator browser. This relatively small concession saved the company some painful questioning - as well as averting possible legal action from the European Commission.
Despite lengthy and repetitive discussions about whether the software giant does or does not have a monopoly of the desktop operating system market, Gates refused to concede. Alsop pointed out that the presence of one dominant desktop operating system is, to many people, desirable.
'There is a very strong desire and need to have one OS on the desktop,' he said.
But Gates refused to concede that Microsoft's position in the desktop PC market amounts to a monopoly, stressing the volatility of the market.
The Senate Judiciary Committee appeared to be mostly concerned with Microsoft's plans for the internet market, rather than other monopoly issues.
In the most damaging exchange for Microsoft, Committee chairman Orrin Hatch tried for several minutes to get Gates to answer yes or no to the question, Does Microsoft limit internet content providers from advertising other browsers?
Finally, Hatch left Gates no option but to admit that, yes, there were certain limitations to what content providers can do if they wish to figure in the Microsoft Channel Guide, which is a part of the Windows98 Active Desktop.
Alsop added that the past 15 years had seen 'a competitive process that established Windows as the single standard.' McNealy countered that what the industry needed was a set of standard interfaces, not a single operating system - but at this point, the discussion had become too technical for the senators, who dropped the issue.
If Hatch proved to be his best briefed and most effective adversary in the Senate, the hearing also demonstrated that Gates has some powerful friends there - such as Senator Edward Kennedy, who pitched Gates some easy questions.
The hearing provided some rare, amusing moments - including an ironic role reversal when Gates, trying to illustrate that Microsoft does not monopolise the desktop, found himself defending the network computer, while McNealy downplayed the market chances of the NC and of his own Java OS.
The general impression is that Microsoft escaped the hearing relatively unscathed - and possibly strengthened. The very presence of strong and outspoken Microsoft competitors contradicted the image they tried to depict of a market dominated by one player. Also, all parties agreed there should be no additional legislation to govern the software industry.
Meanwhile, the senators seemed mainly concerned about specific provisions in Microsoft's contracts with OEMs, ISPs and content providers. They did not respond to the more fundamental criticism of Microsoft's monopoly and possible stifling of innovation. This appears to present Microsoft with an easy way out - by voluntarily changing contract provisions, as it just did for ISPs, without fundamentally changing the way it does business.
Activist investor puts forward five director candidates as turmoil continues at security giant
Nima Green asks what is driving public cloud uptake in Germany
In the wake of yet another lawsuit involving Oracle, we run through 10 of the vendor's biggest court battles
CEO Chuck Robbins says Cisco will use the Catalyst 9000 product range as a template for future launches