What’s the US Department of Justice’s problem?
The main problem is that it reckons Microsoft was a bully, carried out unsavoury business practices and - if we can put it this way - became accustomed to stomping on anyone who got in its way. All this, stems back to a Consent Decree signed in 1995 between Microsoft and the US Department of Justice (DoJ) claiming the software giant cannot force licensees of its Windows operating system to buy its other products. When Microsoft decided to integrate its browser into Windows 95 the US government threw up its hands in horror and accused the company of violating the decree.
With you so far…
The DoJ asked for an injunction to prevent the product being sold and, after much to-ing and fro-ing, between 1995 and 1998 the US Appeals courts agreed with Microsoft. But only after a few sofa-gripping moments including a US District Court ruling against Microsoft - for one heart stopping moment it looked like Windows 95 would have to be recalled. Yikes.
Hang on a minute, where does the antitrust thing come in?
Patience, we’re getting there. Now, after the ruling overturning the injunction, the DoJ scuttled back to their desks to think up a new way to stop the Seattle behemoth. Its answer was to accuse Microsoft of all manner of dastardly business practises used to extend its dominance in the desktop market. In addition, 18 US states also decided to take anti-trust action against Microsoft.
I bet Microsoft didn’t take that lying down?
You could say that. What followed was two years of motion filing and counter filing between both sides. Allegations were made by Microsoft that the presiding judge, a chap called Penfield Jackson, was biased, that a special master appointed to teach the jury the technical ins and outs of the case was also biased and, finally, that the DoJ was just out to “get” Microsoft because it was rich and successful.
Don’t hold out, what happened next?
Years of written and oral testimony resulting in the production of a document called the Findings of Fact. Each side produces a document to show how the evidence supports their case. After this, Judge Penfield Jackson - who by this time had shaken off allegations of plying the media with anti-Microsoft sentiment - issued a Conclusion of Law. Naturally, Microsoft appealed but its bank of lawyers lost this battle.
Which means what?
To cut a long story short - and you knew we would - in June 2000 a Federal District Court found Microsoft to be guilty of monopolistic practices and bullying in such a way as to violate anti-trust laws and harm one-time browser foe Netscape. The company was told it would be split up into separate divisions. Chairman Gates, unsurprisingly enough, didn’t like this ruling and ordered his legal minions to file, refile and file again until he got a result he liked. Unfortunately, this was not to be as the US Court of Appeals agreed with their fellow judges and one year later unanimously confirmed Microsoft to be guilty.
Where are we now?
Both sides presented a settlement to the US District Court which required significant changes to the way Microsoft develops, licenses and markets its software - but no split. A team of minders was appointed to ensure the company stays on the straight and narrow.
But Microsoft has yet to settle with all the individual states.
Indeed, and AOL - now the owner of the Netscape browser business - is suing for compensation due to Microsoft’s anticompetitive practices. And what’s more, Microsoft is now being sued by a US anti-trust organisation for failing to disclose full details of communications at the time when the settlement was being negotiated. But then the DoJ is being sued too. So the cycle begins again - and it doesn’t get any simpler.