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Sitting on a Microsoft Fix

April 26, 2002

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was combative and evasive in his 1998 testimony in the federal antitrust trial of the giant software company. Wearing casual clothes and rocking back and forth, he suffered what appeared to be frequent bouts of amnesia. In his testimony this week, Gates was much more refined, wearing elegant outfits chosen by his wife, summoning a sharp memory and at least initially responding ''Yes, sir!'' to his questioners.

Although Gates' demeanor was more stylish, his insistence that Microsoft had not tried to squash competition was no more believable than three years ago. His ultimately obstinate testimony underscores why U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly should reject the toothless proposed federal settlement with Microsoft. Microsoft's own vice president in charge of Windows, Christopher R. Jones, admitted to her Thursday that the federal plan would do nothing to loosen the company's vise-tight control of the PC software market.

Gates began his testimony by dismissing the states' key demand--that Kollar-Kotelly allow PC makers to equip units with a stripped-down version of Windows that would allow consumers to choose which components to add. Gates testified that removing any part of the inseparable Windows operating system would so afflict the "health of the PC ecosystem" that it would force him to withdraw from the market the software on which 95% of the world's computers depend. Oh, right. And maybe he will also hold his breath until his face turns blue.

On Wednesday, however, even Gates was forced to admit that his firm already made a bare-bones operating system--called Windows XP Embedded--that did just what the states had asked. Consumers can't use Windows XP Embedded, not because doing so would plunge the world into chaos but because Microsoft's truculent licensing terms bar consumers from running the system on PCs.

If Judge Kollar-Kotelly rejects the federal settlement, as she should, she will have to choose among the 19 extremely complex alternative remedies suggested by the states. While she won't be able to satisfy all of the states' demands, Windows XP Embedded gives her at least one alluringly simple and elegant solution.

If ordinary consumers had access to it, they could avoid "bloatware"--the unrequested features that average people never use but that are likely to make their PCs crash. Consumers could build truly personal computers--machines designed not to extend one company's stifling dominion but rather to meet their own day-to-day needs.

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