The real judge: a wallet

United States vs. Microsoft presents an awkward situation, to be sure, but it's
not unprecedented. The Truman Commission grilled Defense Department contractors way back
in the 1940s.

Government buyers and specifiers of information technology have, like their
private-sector counterparts, voted with scarce dollars for Microsoft Corp. products.
Microsoft Windows NT, for example, is becoming the de facto server and network operating
system standard in many agencies.

If the current dispute were over a company defrauding the government, good and evil
would be clear-cut. In the Microsoft battle, though, the issues are debatable.

The real--and only--question is whether Microsoft is acting illegally or just violating
the consent decree it signed in 1995.

Columnist Steve Ryan, Page 29, looks at United States vs. Microsoft in political
terms. The issue has a technical dimension as well.

At the heart of the suit is the question of whether the Microsoft Internet Explorer
World Wide Web browser is a feature of Windows or a separate application.

If it's a separate app, then Microsoft's forcing of licensees to bundle it with Windows
95--and presumably Win98--is an open-and-shut case. Microsoft is in the wrong.

But if, as the company contends, it is integrating Web access into Windows as a
seamless whole, then this is simply a case of Microsoft not letting licensees pick and
choose which OS features they preload onto PCs.

Operating systems for all platforms are steadily becoming more useful and complex.
Print services, compression, disk defragmentation, text editing, calculators, even the
graphical user interface itself are examples of once-separate apps that are now expected
in an OS.

Still, Web browsers can be separated and removed more readily than other features.
What, the government may be asking, would prevent Microsoft from calling its Office 97
suite a feature of Windows 98, and thereby putting it onto virtually every PC sold?

Microsoft might be easy to dislike, but the government must make a legal case on
objective, technological grounds. If there's to be a plebiscite on Microsoft, let it take
place in individuals' buying decisions, not in the courts.

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