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It’s a Consumer Victory as Court Checks Microsoft

Consumers won a clear victory last week when a U.S. district court ordered Microsoft to stop requiring computer makers to install Microsoft’s Internet browser on their equipment. A browser is demanded by many computer users today and, despite Microsoft’s aggressive market strategies, consumers should be able to have the one they want when they buy a computer.

Microsoft has a market share of more than 90% in operating systems for personal computers, which effectively makes its systems like Windows 95 and Windows NT indispensable in running most applications. That’s a potent weapon for coercing computer makers into bundling Microsoft’s Explorer--rather than Netscape Navigator or some other browser--into their machines.

Microsoft’s lawyers employed a clever strategy to try to duck culpability, claiming the Computer Age is so revolutionary that current antitrust laws cannot apply. Their point is well taken; rapidly evolving computer technology does deserve special consideration. But under current law, Microsoft clearly pushes the limits.

The Justice Department argued that Microsoft’s claims that the browser amounts to an integral part of the operating system are ludicrous because it “has named, packaged and positioned Internet Explorer as a separate product.” The government accused the software giant of trying to “rewrite this history.”

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Microsoft’s Bill Gates notes that interpretations of history change. Indeed, browsers, which enable users to view and navigate between visually elaborate Internet sites, were hardly necessary in the early ‘90s when the Internet was mostly a drab compendium of text. Since then, however, the Internet has become dominated by animated, colorful sites viewable only with browsers.

Nevertheless, it’s not clear that browsers have become as integral to computers as their operating system. Nor is it clear that current antitrust laws need a total overhaul. Recognizing that so many issues remain murky, the federal judge wisely refrained from a blanket rejection of Microsoft’s argument. Instead, he appointed a “special master,” an expert in high-technology law, to examine Microsoft’s case and report back to him by May 31.

In the meantime, the judge temporarily restrained Microsoft’s strong arm, rightly noting that Microsoft, already dominating the operating system market, “might also acquire yet another monopoly in the Internet browser market.” He added, and we agree, that no consumers “should be denied the browser of their choice because Microsoft made their computer vendor an offer they couldn’t refuse.”


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