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Gates' Gambit: He Offers A Version Of Windows That Won't Work

By Philip Elmer-DeWitt/TIME

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Both sides tipped their hand in the ongoing battle between the unstoppable force that is Microsoft and the immovable object that is the Justice Department's antitrust division. As expected, Microsoft is appealing Judge Thomas Jackson's temporary order to stop using its Windows 95 monopoly as a stick to force computer makers to adopt its Internet Explorer Web browser. Microsoft claims the two products are inseparable. If the judge insists, however, it is willing to offer computer makers a choice between Windows 95 with Explorer built in and a two-year-old, "dumbed down" version so obsolete that it doesn't work with the newest software products.

That is no choice at all, Justice promptly responded, labeling Microsoft's letter-of-the-law gambit an "affront" and renewing its call for a $1 million-a-day contempt fine. Judge Jackson postponed a hearing on the issue until mid-January but noted pointedly in court that it took only 90 seconds to remove Explorer from his version of Windows 95, and that the computer worked just fine without it.

The real battleground, of course, is not Windows 95 but Windows 98, the next incarnation of Microsoft's cash cow, into which its Web browser is even more tightly knit. The implications of the shots fired last week are clear: selling two versions of Win 98, one browser-enabled, the other crippled, won't satisfy anyone.

Assuming the case stays in Judge Jackson's court, the focus now shifts to Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, the "special master" empowered by Jackson to sort through the daunting complexities of federal antitrust law and Microsoft's operating-system strategies--and to report back by May 31. Lessig, 36, an iconoclastic legal scholar who has written about the "tyranny" of computer code, is a Macintosh user.


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