Judge questions browser security in antitrust case

Microsoft antitrust trial Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson acknowledges that he approaches computers like any other consumer. But in court, he has asked a question that hit on a key concern for corporate IT departments and that also raised troubling questions for Microsoft's defense.

Microsoft antitrust trial Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson acknowledges that he approaches computers like any other consumer. But in court, he has asked a question that hit on a key concern for corporate IT departments and that also raised troubling questions for Microsoft’s defense.

The question was simple, but its implications for the trial are profound. “Are there any security issues involved in this choice of a browser or whether to get a browser at all?” Jackson asked computer expert and government witness Edward Felten, a professor at Princeton University.

Some companies, Felten responded, don’t want browsers on their desktops in order to reduce the risk of security problems, such as viruses.

Jackson’s question is important because it focuses on the issue of consumer harm. The government argues that Microsoft’s decision to make its browser an inseparable part of Windows 98 has hurt consumers -- including corporate users -- by limiting choice.

Jackson is months away from issuing a verdict. But if there’s meaning to be found in his comments and expressions, then the government has had the edge during the trial’s rebuttal phase.

The judge was particularly animated during Microsoft’s cross-examination of a key government witness last week, executive Garry Norris.

Norris, who was IBM’s lead negotiator for its Windows licensing agreement from 1995 to 1997, said IBM had been paying $US9 per copy for Windows 3.1, but the starting price for Windows 95 was $75.

Save by Compliance

IBM was offered the chance to reduce the price by complying with a laundry list of Microsoft marketing provisions. For instance, if IBM agreed to “adopt Windows 95 as the standard operating system for IBM,” it could cut its royalty rate by $3. That would mean sending IBM’s OS/2 operating system to the “grave,” Norris testified.

IBM rejected that provision, but by complying with others, the company was able to reduce its royalty to $46.40 -- an amount still above that paid by competitors like Compaq Computer.

Microsoft attorney Rick Pepperman countered by getting Norris to concede that Microsoft’s agreement never required IBM to stop shipping OS/2. Microsoft also introduced documents that pointed to a far more complex relationship, including charges that IBM conducted a “smear campaign,” knocking the features and capabilities of Windows 95.

But when Pepperman said Microsoft was willing to call more witnesses, including Microsoft’s head of OEM relations, Joachim Kempin, to back up some of its documents, Jackson snapped: “There is a lot more they’re going to have to testify besides who wrote these documents.”

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