Microsoft may face new probe over meetings with Netscape

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is on Microsoft's case again. This time, the latest potential antitrust investigation is reportedly based on allegations that nearly three years ago Microsoft tried -- illegally -- to get bitter rival Netscape Communications to agree to divide up the Internet software market. At that time, Netscape's Navigator Web browser dominated the market, while Microsoft had yet to launch its competing Internet Explorer.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is on Microsoft's case again.

This time, the latest potential antitrust investigation is reportedly based on allegations that nearly three years ago Microsoft tried -- illegally -- to get bitter rival Netscape Communications to agree to divide up the Internet software market. At that time, Netscape's Navigator Web browser dominated the market, while Microsoft had yet to launch its competing Internet Explorer.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft officials met with Netscape in May 1995 to debate such a topic. The Journal said that DOJ is focusing its questions on whether Microsoft suggested that Netscape concentrate on producing browsers for non-Microsoft operating systems. In the article, Marc Andreessen, Netscape co-founder and executive vice president, likened Microsoft to a fictional Mafioso and implied it was threatening Netscape.

"Netscape's allegation is completely false," Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray told the IDG News Service. "Microsoft did not at anytime suggest dividing up any market whatsoever. This is just an obvious fiction that is being circulated by Netscape in a pretty transparent effort to promote Netscape's political agenda."

Netscape has said on previous occasions that, back in 1995, Microsoft did endeavor to initiate a collaborative relationship with the vendor. Netscape has said that at one point, Microsoft suggested collaborating with and investing in the Mountain View, California-based vendor, efforts which Netscape rebuffed.

Netscape officials have "consistently misrepresented" meetings between the two companies, Murray said today. In reality, Microsoft never sought to buy Netscape. Rather, Netscape wanted Microsoft to invest in it, he said.

Whatever the tone of the discussions, this is the first time that it has been publicly suggested something illegal allegedly took place with Microsoft seeking to bar Netscape from the Windows arena. Murray denied that anything at all illegal occurred in any meeting with Netscape.

After a speech in Boston today, Andreessen declined to comment on the May 1995 meeting between the two companies. An assistant with him prefaced the opening of questions from the press by saying that he would not take any legal questions. Asked if that included queries regarding the Microsoft meeting, he said, "No questions about that."

But he painted a lurid picture of the meeting in an interview with the Journal yesterday, likening it to a visit by Mario Puzo's fictional Godfather character.

"It was like a visit by Don Corleone," Andreessen said. "I expected to find a bloody computer monitor in my bed the next day."

Such a depiction is "just a crock," Murray said.

"I think Marc should change his title from chief technology officer to chief mythology officer," Murray said.

He could not say if Microsoft has received a subpoena from the DOJ relative to the May 1995 meeting, but he said the company continues to turn over documents and answer questions in the ongoing case.

Microsoft and the DOJ remain at loggerheads over whether the software giant has leveraged its dominance in PC operating systems to gain an unfair advantage in other software markets, especially the Web browser market.

Earlier last week, Microsoft and the DOJ went before an appeals court in Washington, D.C. The software vendor was trying to get the appeals court to overturn a December 1997 ruling that it must offer a version of Windows 95 without Internet Explorer.

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