A top Microsoft Corp. executive has acknowledged in court that his company was worried about the threat Netscape Communications Corp.'s browser posed to the Windows platform and said Microsoft had attempted to convince Netscape not to compete against the software giant.
The admission by Paul Maritz, the most senior Microsoft executive to testify in person in the antitrust trial, obliquely addresses one of the key claims in the U.S. government's case -- that Microsoft attempted to persuade Netscape to split the browser market.
Maritz, who denied that allegation in his written testimony, was often vague in his responses today about Microsoft's goals with Netscape. His questioning by lead government attorney David Boies was painstaking, with Boies often having to repeat questions.
At one point, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson said of Maritz, "It seems awfully difficult to get an answer to the question put before him."
Microsoft attorney John Warden countered with, "I think the witness has been awfully forthcoming."
The last time Jackson so bluntly criticized a witness came after the court viewed the videotaped deposition of Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief executive officer. At that time, Jackson said Gates "has not been particularly responsive to his deposition interrogation."
Throughout the late afternoon, Boies questioned Maritz about whether Microsoft intended to have Netscape realign its business so that it did not offer direct browser competition to Microsoft.
"It is our desire to have everybody in the world build on top of Windows," said Maritz at one point.
Initially, Maritz said, he believed Netscape's primary goal was to build value-added Internet technologies and "higher-level" software such as groupware messaging, rather than focus on the browser client.
But Boies wanted to know what happened at the infamous June 21, 1995 meeting between Netscape and Microsoft at which the U.S. government alleges Microsoft made a proposal to divide up the browser market.
"Different people came out of that meeting with different impressions of what Netscape really wanted to do," said Maritz, who did not attend the meeting but had talked to Microsoft executives who had been there.
Maritz said his impression after the meeting was that "Netscape was going to build out their (browser) platform in competition with us."
But Boies, in trying to focus his questioning, was able to confront Maritz with specific e-mails that outlined Microsoft's goals. One memo, written May 15 by Dan Rosen, Microsoft's general manager of new technology, said, "We should try to strike a close relationship with Netscape. In this relationship our goal should be to wrest leadership of the client evolution from them."
Netscape CEO James Barksdale testified in court in October of last year on what he said was a plan by Microsoft to allow his company to develop browsers for other operating systems "as long as we did not try to compete with them in developing a browser for the Windows 95 platform -- which, of course, we all anticipated would shortly become the dominant operating system."
Boies asked Maritz whether Netscape would have posed less of a threat to Windows if the two companies had been able to reach an agreement.
"I don't know," Maritz said. "This could have gone either way."
Microsoft's chief legal counsel William Neukom dismissed the importance of the June 21, 1995 meeting, saying that the "proof in the pudding" was that "nothing was agreed to at that meeting that diminished the competition."
Maritz will return to the witness stand tomorrow. James Allchin, senior vice president of Microsoft's personal and business systems, will then follow Maritz on the stand.
(Patrick Thibodeau is a senior writer at Computerworld.)