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This week in history: Microsoft versus the world

This week set the stage for two lawsuits in history, one in the US and the other in the EU, brought against Microsoft due to its “anti-competitive” practices related to Internet Explorer.


For most people today, the Internet is a fundamental part of the computer experience. So, almost anybody with a Windows based computer is familiar with Internet Explorer (IE), the conspicuous browser that has come bundled with Windows machines for years. IE is as famous as it is infamous, and like it or not, Microsoft owns Windows, and owns the browser that comes with it.

Few would question this arrangement, and most get along fine, paying a quick visit to IE upon purchasing a new computer, only to promptly download a new browser, and forget that the hideous ‘e’ icon ever existed.

But in fact, the world’s most popular browser has been a plague to Microsoft for many years, and the subject of various attacks and litigation held against the company.

Today, we revisit two such cases which occurred on the same week, separated by over a decade, and four thousand miles of ocean.

Bill vs. Bill

In 1997 two very different Bills ruled the world: Bill Clinton, in the White House, and Bill Gates, the richest man alive and still CEO of Microsoft at that time. A rapidly rising power in the PC industry, which had already well triumphed over its rival Apple, Microsoft was disliked by its competitors, and the subject of much public criticism and suspicion.

And so, in autumn of that year, the U.S Department of Justice was quick to lodge a suit against the company for allegedly failing to comply with a consent decree issued three years earlier in 1994. The subject of the violation: Microsoft refused to issue licenses for Windows to computer manufacturers, unless they agreed to install Internet Explorer with the machine.

While arguably few good alternatives to the browser existed at that time, the practice was deemed anti-competitive, and Microsoft was accused of having a monopoly.In an age when few laws had been made to regulate either the Internet, or the PC industry, ignorance reigned in the courtroom, and district judge Thomas Penfield Jackson uninstalled Internet Explorer on a Windows 95 machine in front of the entire court, to demonstrate that the operating system functioned “flawlessly” without it.

Except, Microsoft quickly objected, he did not uninstall the program at all: he merely deleted the icon.

But the case quickly transcended objections to Microsoft’s hardware policies, and culminated on March 3rd of 1998, when Bill Gates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the largest room in the Senate at that time.

There, fiery rivals – such as James Barksdale of Netscape Communications and Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy – teamed up against their mutual enemy Microsoft, using the occasion to pronounce woeful prophecies over the company.

“We think, left unchecked,”  McNealy is quoted as saying at the time, “Microsoft has a monopoly position that they could use to leverage their way into banking, newspapers, cable, and broadcasting, Internet service providers, applications, data bases browsers. You name it.”

McNealy continued Judge Jackson’s embarrassing courtroom legacy with some very bad analogies.

“The only technology I’d rather own than Windows would be English,” said McNealy. “All of those who use English would have to pay me a couple hundred dollars a year just for the right to speak English. And then I can charge you upgrades when I add new alphabet characters like ‘n’ and ‘t.’ It would be a wonderful business.”

The hearing lasted over four hours.

“As you know,” argued Gates, marked for his cool but evasive demeanor at the hearing, “a monopolist, by definition, is a company that has the ability to restrict entry by new firms and unilaterally control price. Microsoft can do neither.”

With the end of the Clinton era, the case was brought to a swift conclusion, and Microsoft hastily made settlements with the Department of Justice.

A second case on the Western Front

But this did not put an end to legal kerfuffle surrounding Microsoft’s browser. On March 6th of 2013, the European Union fined Microsoft for €561 million (equal to $732 million at that time) after the company violated an agreement to include special “browser choice” software with versions of Windows sold within the Schengen Area, therefore making Internet Explorer the default browser on those systems, as it is in the rest of the world.

The antitrust legislation had been established by EU regulators four years earlier, in 2009, with interests similar to those of the U.S Department of Justice in 1998. Regulators wanted to prevent Microsoft from dominating and therefore damaging the browser industry, and thus insisted that the company give users a choice between a number of web browsers for their default Internet program.

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Despite these attempts at fairness, popular browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Opera were still given precedence in the roster, and less popular browsers such as ‘Lunascape’ and ‘K-Meleon’ were put in second place.

Microsoft was all too willing to comply with the EU, and claimed that the violation had been a mistake.  “We take full responsibility for the technical error that caused this problem and have apologized,” said the company in 2013.

While Microsoft’s lawsuit woes have followed us out of the early days of the PC, and into the modern world, lawsuits like these certainly don’t happen like they used to.

Hypocrisy of the state?

Google, which has dominated the market as the foremost search engine, a provider of hardware, software, and Internet services has never faced similar court dramas and accusations. But Google has come far closer to McNealy’s dire predictions for Microsoft than Microsoft ever did.

Besides their implications of a changing tech market, the court cases of 1998 and 2013 raise questions regarding the nature of anti-trust litigation and monopolies in a capitalist economy. In March of 1998, Capitalism Magazine ran an opinion piece entitled ‘Microsoft is Successful Because It is Competitive’.

In the article, Joseph Kellard argued that the litigation against Microsoft exploited an arbitrary definition of ‘monopoly’, which actually endangered freedom in the market by abusing government authority. “Netscape and Sun Microsystems, Microsoft’s primary competitors, do not seek freedom of competition,” wrote Kellard, “but rather the abuse of government’s coercive powers to guarantee themselves unearned competitive advantages.”

Whether or not Microsoft has the right to bundle their own software on their own operating system, it is interesting to note what a legacy of hate that Internet Explorer has left in the world. Despised by peoples of the world, and governments alike, and even though it has been thoroughly purged of old bugs and software flaws, time seems powerless to heal the curse of Internet Explorer.

Brandon Shutt
Brandon is an A+ certified technician and freelance writer living in East Tennessee. He loves God, writing, science (especially technology) and philosophy. He is currently preparing to enter the field of information security.

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