Computerworld

MS/DOJ: Government questions live demo credibility

In its antitrust trial yesterday, Microsoft Corp.'s defense team ran a live demonstration of a Princeton University computer expert's browser removal program in an attempt to show that it really doesn't work. But the end result was far from black and white.

In its antitrust trial yesterday, Microsoft Corp.'s defense team ran a live demonstration of a Princeton University computer expert's browser removal program in an attempt to show that it really doesn't work. But the end result was far from black and white.

Microsoft set up a Toshiba Corp. laptop computer in front of expert Edward Felten who was on the witness stand. While video monitors displayed to the courtroom what was happening on the computer screen, Felten ran his browser removal program following step-by-step instructions given by Microsoft attorney Steven Holley.

However, Felten immediately protested, saying his program was developed to run on a computer that was in a "virgin state" -- with only Microsoft's Windows operating system and its Web browser Internet Explorer (IE) and no other programs. The laptop included at least one other browser, developed by Encompass Inc., which relies heavily on IE technologies.

Felten developed his program to help the U.S. government show that Microsoft had illegally "tied" its browser to its operating system in order to crush browser rival Netscape Communications Corp.

Government lawyers objected to the demonstration and said the results would be "irrelevant." Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson also had doubts about the demo, but seemed to give in to both Holley's persistence and his own curiosity.

"Mr. Holley really wants to run this program," the judge said, and with a sweeping wave of his hand overruled the government's objection.

Felten ran his removal program. Holley then had him start up a Microsoft program called Windows Update which links the computer via the Web to Microsoft's Web site. Felten's removal program was designed to keep the Windows Update feature operating, but not allow IE to appear. However, when Holley asked Felten to hit the "ctrl" and "n" key, which is the command for creating a new browser window, what appeared to be a fully functional IE browser popped up.

"Look at all the blue Internet Es that we see all over this machine," said Holley, somewhat sarcastically, referring to the IE logo.

Felten said he didn't understand what happened and said Holley may have demonstrated a bug in the program. However, he insisted throughout his testimony that "the removal program is still a valid proof of concept.''

The two argued back and forth until the judge cut them off saying, "I think you both made your points."

Felten completed his testimony today. He was the third and last U.S. government rebuttal witness. When the trial resumes Monday, David M. Colburn, senior vice president of business affairs at America Online Inc. (AOL), will be Microsoft's first witness. Colburn, who testified earlier as a government witness, is being called as a "hostile" witness by Microsoft to testify about events surrounding AOL's acquisition of Netscape last year.

Microsoft's demonstration aside, the judge earlier today may have given the government some powerful help by questioning whether a Web browser on a PC creates a security risk.

The judge asked Felten if including a browser with an operating system creates security vulnerabilities, such as potential virus infections. The question was clearly aimed at Microsoft's decision to make IE an inseparable part of its Windows 98 operating system.

"Are there any security issues involved in this choice of a browser or whether to get a browser at all?" asked Judge Jackson.

Felten said administrators in a large organizations and corporations "may not choose" to include a browser to reduce the possibility of security problems.

Jackson's question is important because it goes to the issue of consumer harm. The U.S. government believes that Microsoft's decision to make its browser part of Windows 98 has limited choice and thus hurt consumers, including corporate end-users.

By raising the issue of security, Jackson was, in effect, suggesting another reason why including the browser as part of Windows 98 has harmed consumers.

Jackson also wanted to know whether the browser included with Caldera Systems Inc.'s Linux operating system offers more or less security protection.

Felten said it was difficult to make that judgment.

Is there "any way of absolutely ensuring security?" Jackson asked.

Felten, who teaches information security at Princeton University, responded that there is no foolproof method.

The professor returned to court today with a new version of his prototype removal program. This new version, he said, changed the interface, fixed some bugs and also preserved the Windows Update feature, which was removed by an earlier version.

Felten also argued that Microsoft can give users "the choice they want" in much the same way that users can decide whether to install Microsoft Word or the vendor's spreadsheet application Excel as separate programs or part of Microsoft Office. "The same is true with IE and Windows," said Felten.

He also said that tests of Windows 98, with and without the browser, showed significant performance and memory gains when IE was removed.

But the U.S. government has more than Felten's word to rely on in this case. Testimony and e-mails by Microsoft Senior Vice President Jim Allchin, prior to the release of Windows 98, also suggest that Microsoft's decision to make IE an inseparable part of its operating system was optional.

In a January 1997 e-mail from Allchin to Microsoft Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Gates and Paul Maritz, group vice president of Microsoft's platforms and applications group, Allchin discussed an internal company debate about shipping Memphis, the code name for Windows 98, without the browser. "I think that he (Joachim Kempin, a senior vice president in charge of Microsoft's original equipment manufacturer relations) wants a 'Memphis-like' product (with all the new hardware support) minus IE 4.0 in June," the e-mail read.