Microsoft move raises antitrust spectre

Microsoft is trying to launch a pre-emptive strike in the Internet arena by making sure its Windows operating systems are the first things users see when they boot up.

Microsoft is trying to launch a pre-emptive strike in the Internet arena by making sure its Windows operating systems are the first things users see when they boot up.

That move has caused some industry observers to foresee antitrust violations; rivals and some PC makers to cry foul; and users, well, mostly to yawn.

Citing a condition of current licensing terms, Microsoft is demanding that PC makers that preload any of the Windows operating systems agree to have their systems boot to a Windows screen before showing anything else.

What raises the spectre of antitrust violations, analysts say, is that computer screens are literally becoming doorways to the Internet and other online services.

And the assumption is that because most people probably will take the first path offered to them, Microsoft will profit from a built-in advantage.

"All we are asking is that Windows be allowed to run in its entirety to allow consumers to see the Windows desktop and choose whether they want to use that or whether they want to choose another provided by the OEM," says Mark Murray, a Microsoft spokesman.

The most obvious alternate interface would be Netscap's forthcoming Constellation, which will let users toggle between desktop applications and the Internet.

If the first thing users see on an Internet-enabled desktop is Windows or the Active Directory, Microsoft's planned Internet shell, then Microsoft theoretically would have first dibs on steering end users to World Wide Web sites. Microsoft might even be able to command as-yet unspecified fees for Web access.

John Robb, an analyst at Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Massachsetts, says Microsoft's attempts to renegotiate OEM licences in favour of its operating systems may have some far-reaching implications.

"There is the potential that Microsoft Office, Windows 95 and even the icons will be turned into a legacy way of interacting with information. If there's ever been an opportunity to displace Microsoft on the desktop, this is it. And it's going to great lengths to ensure that doesn't happen," he says.

Computer makers would like to thwart any efforts by Microsoft to dominate cyberspace to the same extent that it controls the PC desktop. But top hardware vendors won't roll over and play dead.

Some, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, week says they are talking to Microsoft about their licensing agreement requirements on the interface and boot-up issues. PC makers want to add their custom interfaces to the desktop.

But six users interviewed by Computerworld US say they view the issue largely as an internecine vendor conflict, not something that concerns them except in some very specific instances.

"I don't care about it, and none of my end users notice what boots first as long as they can access applications and do their jobs," says Dan Schuffert, a senior systems programmer at a large paper manufacturer in the Midwest.

Frank Delargy, a senior information systems manager at Polaroid in Waltham, Massachusetts, says he isn't concerned, as long as Microsoft makes no attempt to infringe on his rights as an user to customise the interface. "I would rather that the screen be an advertisement for Polaroid than Microsoft," he says.

Whatever comes up on users' screens is real estate that is essentially owned by the PC vendors. They do have the option of saying no to Microsoft's licensing requests, says an analyst at a Boston-based investment firm, who requested anonymity. He likens the PC screen to property that can be rented in much the same way as a billboard.

Whoever wants to pay the rental fee should get the benefit of having their advertisement in front of the consumer public. And if Microsoft can entice the PC vendors to rent them that space by leveraging licensing deals, it deservse to reap the bounty, the analyst says.

The Justice Department hadn't responded at press time to calls about whether it will take any antitrust action against Microsoft regarding the boot-Windows-first licensing provision.

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