Taken for a Spin

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-07-23

Microsoft scored some big public relations points with its open desktop announcement earlier this month, but I still cant get over how deftly the company managed to deflect attack in its newfound ability to separate the Internet Explorer browser from its operating system.

The company spent millions of dollars and countless hundreds of man-hours arguing in court that the two were completely intertwined and could never be cleaved without severely impairing the OS.

Jim Allchin, Microsofts senior vice president of personal and business systems, testified to the above in court in January 1999 and said it was an "objectively verifiable fact" that the two couldnt be effectively unbolted.

But already Microsoft was in damage control mode. In December 1998, Princeton University Professor Edward Felten gave a devastating 30-minute video presentation to the court on how IE could be detached without harming to the OS.

It was the core of the case: The government charged Microsoft had tied its browser to the OS to kill Netscape Communications. Microsoft argued the two were together because they were integrated and a benefit to consumers. In the end, Microsoft said Felten had only managed to block user access to IE, not eliminate it.

Now comes the announcement in which Microsoft breezily added IE to the add/drop menu in its upcoming Windows XP operating system. Doesnt anyone smell a fish?

I confronted Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan with the apparently glaring inconsistency and he gave me an obviously well-rehearsed response: In letting XP users drop IE from the desktop, Microsoft doesnt allow the removal of the program. "Its still in there," Cullinan says.

Clearly, the companys attorneys werent going to leave this loose end hanging, but I have a hard time buying Cullinans explanation. I also think hes in rather safe territory because no one has the time — or at this point, the inclination — to scroll through millions of lines of OS code to see if the IE browser is in fact there or not.

So I tried a different tack. I asked Cullinan why I can go get a stand-alone version of IE for Macintosh and install it — clearly its not an integral piece of the Mac OS. Doesnt that prove that IE is, in fact, a self-contained program?

Again, Cullinan was in full spin: "IE for Mac is not related to Windows IE." Its a totally different program that is branded the same as Internet Explorer!

While the explanation is remarkably convenient, I dont buy it. IE for Mac essentially walks, talks and quacks just like IE for Windows. That the two are not related bends Microsofts credibility to the breaking point.

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