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Alas, Microsoft Wins Again

November 02, 2002

The slap on the wrist that U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington gave Microsoft on Friday should trouble you if:

* You tried to use your laptop's hot new wireless card to check your e-mail and Windows crashed because your Internet service provider hadn't been able to pay Microsoft enough to get the latest coding.

* You scrambled to download music from a neighborhood garage band but were out of luck because the tracks were recorded in software written by Real Networks and every time you tried to play them, Microsoft's Media Player came on the screen to scold: "unsupported format."

* You lust for a new palmtop, the one with the full-color screen and cut-rate price, but your company's computer administrator rolls her eyes condescendingly because only one model will work with the company's Outlook server.

* You live in the 21st century.

Like the woefully ineffectual verdict that the Bush administration worked out with Microsoft last year, Kollar-Kotelly's ruling does next to nothing to rein in future abuse by the big-dog corporation, which controls 96% of the world's Web browser market and 93% of the world's home computer operating system market.

Kollar-Kotelly could have, and should have, strengthened the settlement by requiring Microsoft to disclose the operating system coding that independent programmers need to fit their programs, like Velcro, onto Windows. She also should have compelled Microsoft to work with streaming-media rivals like Real Networks and offer a less expensive, stripped-down version of Windows that your company can fine-tune so it works with that cool new palmtop you want to buy.

Instead, Kollar-Kotelly weakened the Bush settlement. For example, she replaced an independent technical committee that would have enforced Microsoft's compliance with a three-member panel appointed -- astonishingly -- by Microsoft's own board of directors.

The three members must not be current or former Microsoft employees, Kollar-Kotelly said, but, needless to say, that hardly rules out conflicts of interest.

This page has often scolded the Clinton administration and U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, the previous judge in the Microsoft case, for overzealous attempts to tear apart the software giant. Kollar-Kotelly's verdict, however, failed to recognize that even worse than government intervention in the free market was a monopolist market in which one company bullied all others and introduced impossibly high barriers to entry by competitors.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and the officials of eight other states still party to the Microsoft lawsuit should appeal Kollar-Kotelly's rude, post-Halloween surprise. It may take years, but surely an appeals court will uphold the principle of vibrant competition that Microsoft has so often dampened.

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