MS/DOJ: MS, Sun lawyers close deposition

A hoax bomb threat cleared a federal courthouse, interrupting the deposition of a top Sun Microsystems executive in US government's antitrust trial against Microsoft. Minutes before the bomb threat was announced, lawyers for Sun and Microsoft agreed to close the hearing to the public because details on products were to be revealed.

A bomb threat has cleared a federal courthouse, interrupting the deposition of a top Sun Microsystems executive that is part of the U.S. government's antitrust trial against Microsoft.

Microsoft lawyers are questioning the Sun executive in an effort to glean information about the strategic alliance formed between Sun and America Online Inc. at the time AOL announced plans to buy Netscape Communications last November.

About an hour after Microsoft lawyers began questioning Michael Popov, vice president and chief operating officer of staff operations for Sun, U.S. Marshals forced everyone to leave the courtroom and walk 17 floors down to the street. Someone had called twice to say a bomb would go off at 11 a.m., but when no bomb went off at that time and none was found in the building, it was determined to be a hoax, officials said.

Minutes before the bomb threat was announced and the building evacuated, lawyers for Sun and Microsoft agreed to close the hearing to the public. They cited orders from U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson that would allow the deposition to be closed if details on products were revealed.

Representatives from a group of newspapers, including The New York Times, objected to closing the hearing to the public, saying that their lawyers had interpreted the judge's ruling differently. Although initially requesting that the judge be asked to decide whether the deposition should be public or not, the newspaper attorneys decided not to pursue the challenge today after conferring with Sun lawyers, a court official said.

The deposition continued behind closed doors after the lawyers, court officials and Popov returned to the courtroom.

Before the deposition began, Microsoft lawyer Richard Pepperman said the company wants to learn details about the AOL-Sun alliance's strategy to expand Netscape's Web browser market share.

After the deposition, Pepperman said the testimony shows that AOL and Sun were working closely as early as last August on plans to challenge Microsoft's dominance in the market. Popov confirmed in a portion of his deposition opened to the public later in the day that Sun executives knew as early as August 1998 that AOL and Netscape were planning to merge.

However, a Justice Department lawyer countered that the testimony has no bearing on the government's antitrust case. " Nothing about the AOL-Netscape deal changes any facts about this case," said attorney Philip Malone. "Nothing changes Microsoft's monopoly position among PC systems."

Microsoft released at the deposition a subpoena presented to Sun last month that details specific information Microsoft is seeking. According to the list, Microsoft wants strategic development and marketing information related to: Netscape's ongoing efforts to develop a "lay-out engine or other client software written in Java"; new Netscape componentized or embeddable browsing technology, sometimes referred to by the code-name "Raptor"; joint development of a "next generation" browser; communications with AOL concerning AOL TV, AOL Phone and AOL PCs and on a strategy called "AOL Anywhere"; and development of Internet access through non-PC devices, including handheld devices, Internet phones and PDA (personal digital assistants).

Two days ago Microsoft questioned Peter Currie, former chief financial officer of Netscape, in a deposition in Washington, D.C., as part of its attempt to undermine the government's claim that the software giant is a monopoly without any real competition. [See "UPDATE: MS/DOJ: Netscape Exec Gives Public Deposition"April 28]

The trial has been in recess since the end of February and is expected to resume May 17. However, the date could be pushed back if another case being heard by the judge isn't over.

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