MS/DOJ: MS, scientist spar over browser definition

A lawyer for Microsoft has spent nearly five hours in court splitting hairs with a Princeton University computer scientist over the definition of an Internet browser and a difference of opinion regarding whether Microsoft's browser can be removed from Windows.

A lawyer for Microsoft has spent nearly five hours in court splitting hairs with a Princeton University computer scientist over the definition of an Internet browser and a difference of opinion regarding whether Microsoft's browser can be removed from its market-dominant Windows operating system.

The testimony of professor Edward Felten that the browser is a “product” that consists of a set of functions instead of software code came during a deposition in preparation for the resumption of the government's antitrust trial against the software giant next week, after a three-month recess.

Microsoft attorney Steven Holley repeatedly challenged Felten's assertion that a prototype browser removal program that he designed with some students removes the Internet Explorer browser from Windows 98, when Felten could not list the files or lines of code that remove the browser.

“What software code in Windows 98 summarises the Internet Explorer browser code?” Holley asked at one point.

“The Internet Explorer browser is a set of functions,” Felten replied. After he said he could not name all the files that need to be removed in order to remove the browser, Felten went on to testify that files are not the only units of software and that a “product” is defined in terms of what it lets the user do.

The war of words is important to Microsoft. If the company loses the case and is declared a monopoly by US District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, then the court will move on to consider what remedies are appropriate. Felten has designed a program that he testified removes the browser, while Microsoft contends the program just hides and disables certain ways to access the browser but leaves intact the overwhelming majority of code.

Felten said that since the first part of the trial concluded at the end of February he has designed a new version of the browser removal program that addresses some of the flaws that Microsoft witnesses pointed out. In particular, the new version includes a separate program that would allow someone who installed the removal program to still access the Windows Update function on the Web, in addition to removing certain menu items and end-running certain error messages.

The US Justice Department and 19 states have alleged that Microsoft used its monopoly in the personal computer operating system market to illegally gain control over the browser market. At the trial, which started in October, each side has presented 12 witnesses. For the next phase of the trial, the rebuttal phase, each side will call three witnesses. The government chose to recall Felten to address some of the criticisms of his browser program. But his testimony is expected to also address other points.

“I'm here to say that Microsoft can offer consumers one more choice,” Felten said, several hours into the questioning today.

“That's the sole import of your testimony? This trivial point that software can be cut up into pieces?” Holley shot back, testily.

(Elizabeth Wasserman is the Washington bureau chief for The Industry Standard.)

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