Unfair marketing or the US way? Legal experts say it will be tough to sort through accusations that Microsoft is using allegedly anticompetitive and illegal means to push its World Wide Web software.
Netscape has charged Microsoft with unlawful and unfair practices; Microsoft calls it capitalism at work. Regardless, it isn't at all certain that the US Department of Justice will get involved, despite Netscape's urgings.
In an eight-page letter sent to the Justice Department three weeks ago, Netscape claimed that Microsoft has paid off or coerced resellers and Internet service providers to carry its Internet Explorer browser.
Other charges included Microsoft's undue delay in releasing application programming interfaces for Windows 95 and Windows NT to slow the arrival of competitive Web servers and browsers for those operating systems. Microsoft flatly denies it all.
The question is whether Microsoft's product marketing methods violate laws or tenets of its consent decree with the federal government, says Michael Sennett, an antitrust lawyer at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd in Chicago. Microsoft was forced to sign a decree in 1994 that blocks it from licensing its operating systems under terms that hinge on licensing other products.
The Justice Department, Sennett says, "would have to look at what is the discount, to what extent is that discount coercive, meaning does it leave PC manufacturers a choice?"
A half-dozen PC makers and Internet service providers contacted by Computerworld US last week were loathe to condemn Microsoft's sales methods. "Microsoft can be difficult to deal with in any case, and they're obviously putting a lot of emphasis on the Internet. But are they doing anything more than usual? I don't really think so," says one PC company executive.
"Microsoft has simply started to hit Netscape directly with the same aggressive marketing assault the rest of the industry has come to expect," says a spokesman at PSInet in Herndon, Virginia.
Still, the Justice Department has requested a written report about Microsoft's tactics in the Web server arena, according to Tim O'Reilly, president of Sebastapol, California-based O'Reilly & Associates. O'Reilly, which makes Web servers for NT, last month accused Microsoft of trying to shut down the market for Web server software on NT Workstation by artificially limiting to 10 the number of users who can be connected simultaneously to the system.
But the federal government will be reluctant to step in and rearrange what is an "embryonic market", predicts Steve Auditore, an analyst at Zona Research in Redwood City, California.
Some observers are wondering why Netscape hasn't filed a lawsuit against Microsoft if it believes Microsoft has violated rules. Suing Microsoft "doesn't strike me as a good use of money," says Netscape's lawyer, Gary Reback, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, California.