Q. How many lawyers does it take to screw up an operating system?

A: Hey, that’s not funny!

The Microsoft antitrust trial hasn’t produced much in the way of humor—except, perhaps, for the anonymous artist who redesigned a Windows dialog box to read, “This company has committed a series of illegal operations and will now be broken up.” Otherwise, the whole sordid affair has been depressing, distracting, and unnecessary. For the next four weeks, I’ll look at Microsoft’s future as we hit the midyear marker, and offer my suggestions for what the company needs to do to get back on track.

Let’s face it: The Microsoft case isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Both sides have dug their heels in, with the Department of Justice overjoyed with its slam-dunk victory in Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s court, and Microsoft confident that the judgment will be reversed when it gets to the appeals court.

That’s a shame, because if this case drags through several years of appeals, then no one wins. Microsoft loses big time, as its top executives are distracted by depositions and hearings and its legal bills hit the hundreds of millions of dollars. The antitrust lawyers lose too, because their drastic solution of breaking Microsoft up is simply going to create two monopolies and will give consumers and business buyers headaches instead of choices. And, of course, we lose, because the remedies don’t create a fair and open market for computer software; instead, they guarantee a system where the company on top—Microsoft, in this case—is automatically disqualified from developing any new products.

These issues are extraordinarily complex. Anyone who thinks that Microsoft is completely innocent just hasn’t been paying attention to the facts in this case. The company has a monopoly, by any definition of the word, and it has repeatedly used that monopoly to crush competitors in a variety of fields. Sadly, it did so even when the competition was falling apart all on its own.

But the cure may be worse than the disease. Anyone who’s standing up and cheering at the prospect of the government’s plan being put into action needs to look more closely at the plan itself. Listening to a 30-second summary on the nightly news (or even a 10-minute feature on NPR) won’t cut it. If you really want to participate in the Microsoft debate, you owe it to yourself to study the original legal documents and decide for yourself. Here are three documents you absolutely owe it to yourself to read:

  • Court’s Findings of Fact : At 166 pages, this one isn’t exactly a Grisham novel. Feel free to skim, but read the section entitled “Microsoft’s Response to the Browser Threat” for a detailed list of Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions.
  • Conclusions of Law : Only 30 pages, several of which are boilerplate and footnotes. Its explanations of antitrust law are dense, but essential if you expect to understand why this case happened.
  • Plaintiffs’ Revised Proposed Final Judgment : This is the final version, submitted to Judge Jackson on June 5 complete with the changes he requested. Pay special attention to the restrictions on the company’s selling Microsoft Windows.

Next week, I’ll examine the government’s breakup plan and speculate on what it could mean for Windows and Office users.