Short Leash Fits Microsoft

Opinion: Ongoing oversight resulting from antitrust settlement improves chances that 'Longhorn' OS will play fair.

For many years Ive been saying the only way to deal with antitrust in the technology business is to get out in front of it. By the time the legal system can deal with problems the damage has been done, and the industry has moved on. Its good to see regulators may have finally learned this lesson, ahem, two decades too late.

Ive said many times that if regulators had taken action to preserve competition shortly after Microsoft created the Office bundle many things would have turned out differently. One suggestion at the time was to split the company into separate OS and apps businesses. It remains my contention what when such steps werent taken that Microsofts eventual dominance was essentially preordained.

I am far from certain that breaking up Microsoft back in the late 1980s would have resulted in a better outcome than weve had. That is rightly a topic for another day, but I wanted to at least raise the possibility that doing nothing really was the best course of action. Im sure Bill and Steve—Ballmer, not Jobs—would agree.

Fast forward to today—well, Jan. 25 actually—when a 16-page "Joint Status Report on Microsofts Compliance with the Final Judgments" was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The report is a twice-yearly discussion of how Microsoft is responding to the slap-on-the-hands inflicted upon it by the federal courts. The current report is the fourth in the series.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Longhorn and the antitrust action.

Unless I am missing something, the tone of the report suggests Microsoft is trying hard to comply and would earn about an A- if grades were being issued.

The most interesting part of the report isnt how swell things seem to be going between Microsoft and the plaintiffs—it almost sounds like a love fest—but the discussion regarding Longhorn and future antitrust issues it might create.

According to the report, the plaintiffs (17 states, D.C., and the feds) have given Microsoft a list of their Longhorn-related concerns. Microsoft has agreed to provide ongoing briefings as Longhorn winds its way to market. The first of these is scheduled for the middle of next month.

Among the topics I hope will be covered is how Longhorn will compete with Linux or work in mixed Windows/Linux environments. Given the competitive threat that the open-source operating system poses, Microsoft must be tempted to do everything possible to fight it—and deal with the legal consequences later.

While the tone around Microsoft these days seems to be, "Were grown-ups now and we dont like sitting in courtrooms," it will still be worthwhile to follow the ongoing discussions, as much as were able to. As much as the world is counting on Longhorn to be a great operating system its just as important that Microsoft deliver it within the law.

Given that Microsoft seems to actually want to stay out of trouble and has adult supervision, in the form of a "technical committee" that reports to the plaintiffs and the court, I expect everything will be OK.

Still, I am happy to see that someone, finally, is actively trying to head off Microsoft troubles before its too late.

/zimages/5/28571.gifFor more insights from David Coursey, check out his Weblog.

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