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Microsoft rulings may be overshadowed by larger trend


November 5, 1999
Web posted at: 4:37 p.m. EST (2137 GMT)

By D. Ian Hopper
CNN Interactive Technology Editor

(CNN) -- There is an old saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." Computer users tired of Microsoft's dominance may end up finding the Department of Justice trying to turn back the clock on what some say has been a natural evolution in computing in the Internet age.

One of Microsoft's main arguments is that most consumers want software to be easier and more powerful and that integration is a fundamental part of that equation.

"We believe wholeheartedly that the facts and the law are behind us, and we will continue to improve Windows for all our customers," Microsoft corporate spokesman Jim Colinin said. "We have been trying to defend our freedom and ability to innovate. That's the driving force behind our defense."

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    The popularity of cheap all-in-one computers, dedicated mainly to Internet use, bolsters that point of view. There are also products generally referred to as "Internet appliances" that are barely computers in the traditional sense, but instead just a box with the sole purpose of getting a user online. Microsoft and its competitors, most notably Sun Microsystems, have embraced these boxes, which in fact have operating systems and Web browsers. The two pieces of software are so integrated that it can be difficult to tell the two apart.

    This trend makes this court case a difficult one, says Colin Mahony, an Internet computing strategies analyst for industry watcher Yankee Group.

    "The problem here is that there's no clear definition of an operating system versus application software versus communication software. The browser is communication software, but it could be construed as operating software. The definitions are extremely arbitrary, and more arbitrary are the fault lines in the OS."

    An especially fuzzy fault line is Windows 98's interface for the file system. In previous versions, Windows Explorer or File Manager was the portal for users to look through their hard drives. Now, although the name "Windows Explorer" is still in place, Windows 98 actually uses Internet Explorer as a file browser. Instead of using IE to browse the Internet, they're using it to browse their own computer.

    It's generally accepted that it's possible to remove Internet Explorer from Windows, and a demonstration of that was an especially embarrassing moment for Microsoft during the trial. It's also an easy task to install a browser relative to installing an OS, whether that browser be Microsoft's or any other. But Mahony doesn't think casual users -- the lion's share of computer users -- really want to have to do that.

    "If you make Microsoft remove the browser, you'll still be able to get other browsers and could purchase Microsoft's browser. But I think that a lot of people are buying computers just to access the Net," Mahoney said.

    "I think that the integration is something that everybody looks for. Users like the fact that they don't have to install software. They know that the browser will work within the OS. The more integration you give them, the happier they are," he said.

    The trial seems to have had no effect on the next generation of operating systems, the enterprise version Windows 2000 and the consumer version code-named Millennium. Windows 2000 is scheduled to ship in mid-February; Millennium does not yet have a ship date.

    "We have continued to improve our platform because you have to continue to innovate and improve the platform, or else we'll be left behind," said Microsoft's Colinin.

    An unfavorable ruling following the judge's finding of fact may, however, impact Microsoft's consumer upgrade path from Windows 95/98 to Millennium.

    "If the court makes Microsoft separate enterprise computing from consumer computing, Microsoft might want to move those consumer users to be called enterprise users really fast," Mahony said.
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