Editor’s note: Earlier this summer, a federal appeals court unanimously overturned the court-ordered breakup of software giant Microsoft Corp. and sent the case to a new judge to decide what penalty, if any, is warranted for the company’s monopolistic practices. In a rare rebuke, the appellate judges said the trial judge “seriously tainted” the case with his derogatory comments about Bill Gates and his empire. Since then, Microsoft has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ultimate outcome will have broad implications for all segments of society, including schools.

Emotions run high when discussing the Microsoft monopoly case. Is Microsoft an illegal monopoly? If so, what can or should be done about it? Was the judge who tried the case biased? What are the implications of the breakup being overturned?

Many people fail to recognize that it is not illegal to have a monopoly on market share. Using the same percentages as used in the Microsoft case, one could easily make the case that Cisco has a monopoly market share in the realm of internet routers.

However, Cisco does not have an illegal monopoly because 3Com, Hewlett-Packard, and possibly others have replacement products that would provide nearly identical functionality. Microsoft has no such competitor. Contrary to the spin doctors, the ruling does not mean business as usual for Microsoft, it merely means that the remedy will be decided by a different, and most likely more lenient, judge.

Technically, the new judge still could break up Microsoft, though it’s not likely this will happen. I have heard some very interesting breakup scenarios, however.

One idea jointly presented by the Software and Information Industry Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association includes breaking Microsoft into three companies, each having the Windows and Office source code. Then, these three companies could compete with each other trying to produce superior products. The obvious problem with this scenario is that it could create incompatibilities among the Windows variants, making the choices for a consumer even more difficult.

A more drastic scenario would be to break up Microsoft into seven companies: operating systems (Windows), enterprise applications (Exchange, SQL), office applications (Office), development tools (Visual Basic, Visual C++), hardware (keyboards and mice), and games (Flight Simulator, Golf).

Personally, I fail to see how breaking Microsoft up into two companies is a punishment. It would merely result in two monopolistic companies.

Since the likelihood of a breakup is small anyway, I believe the most effective remedy would be regulation focusing primarily on the following two areas. First, I would like to see regulation of Microsoft’s press releases and marketing people. I know this sounds silly at first, but Microsoft has built its empire on FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

Whenever a competitor announces a good idea, Microsoft immediately announces it will be releasing its own Microsoft Good Idea, which will, of course, be much better because it will be integrated with everything else Microsoft. Then the company begins development on Microsoft Good Idea. As a consequence, the first company gets no sales.

Second, I would like to see regulation on internal application program interfaces (APIs). This is an issue that came up repeatedly in the court case but did not get much press because of its technical nature.

To put it into lay terms, an API is a way of getting your program to talk to the operating system. There are necessarily some APIs that don’t get sent to vendors, as they are intended to be used only by the operating system. However, these “internal” APIs can speed up some programs greatly. When Microsoft gives these internal APIs to its own office applications division, but not to competitors, the competitors are not contending on a level playing field.

Microsoft apologists insist the only reason Microsoft was declared an illegal monopoly to begin with is because the judge assigned to the case, Thomas Penfield Jackson, was biased against Microsoft from the beginning.

I can tell you from my experience as a witness in a small municipal court that you do not want to anger a judge, yet Microsoft’s attorneys did so, and seemingly on purpose. Perhaps their most audacious folly was to present inaccurate testimony.

According to online technology news source CNET, Microsoft’s expert technical witness, James Allchin, admitted that videotapes submitted as evidence were not accurate, although U.S. Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein said the government would not prosecute Gates or other Microsoft officials for “possible misstatements or errors of fact made during trial testimony” (quote courtesy of ABCnews.com).

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but it certainly appears to me as if Microsoft expected this ruling, and purposely angered the judge so the company would have a basis for appeal. Were Judge Jackson’s videotaped comments against Microsoft–filmed before he announced his verdict–inappropriate? Certainly, and the appeals court agrees. Does this mean he was biased against Microsoft from the beginning? No.

Now for the most important question: What does this mean for your schools? In the short term, it means very little, because nothing really has changed. The decision that ultimately gives the remedy that gets implemented will have much more impact on how Microsoft affects education, as well as business. However, I highly encourage you to explore alternative technologies in the meantime.

StarOffice, available from Sun Microsystems, is a free office suite that will read and write Microsoft Office-compatible documents, though Sun is still looking for developers to port its successor, OpenOffice, to MacOS X.

Mozilla, available from the Mozilla Organization, is a free web browser that works on many operating systems. If you are on a tight budget, GNU/Linux is an excellent operating system that is (you guessed it) free, and more educational applications are available all the time (see http://www.seul.org/edu for updates).

Kyle Hutson is the director of technology at Rock Creek School District in Kansas. He can be reached at smyle@rockcreek.k12.ks.us.

Links:

“Microsoft trips on video evidence”
http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1003-200-338153.html?tag=rltdnws

StarOffice download
http://www.sun.com/star/staroffice/get.html

The Mozilla Organization
http://www.mozilla.org