States ask for Microsoft oversight until 2012

Microsoft could quash Web 2.0 by breaking IE, California-led group argues

A group of state attorneys general urged a federal judge on Tuesday to hold Microsoft Corp. to a 2002 antitrust settlement another five years so that the company can't stymie embryonic Web 2.0 rivals of its Windows operating system.

According to six states -- California, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Massachusetts -- and the District of Columbia, Microsoft could use its Internet Explorer browser as a "chokepoint" to block moves that might unseat Windows dominant position on the desktop.

"Microsoft has the ability -- by virtue of IE's dominance and its resulting control of Web standards -- to use the browser as a chokepoint with respect to consumer access to the Internet-centric technologies that currently represent the most promising nascent platform threats to Windows," the states claimed.

Although the states had said they would ask for an extension last month in a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the motion filed Tuesday formalized the request.

Key agreements nearing sunset

Key parts of the consent decree that Microsoft struck with the U.S. Department of Justice and 20 states back in 2002 are scheduled to expire Nov. 12. In August, federal regulators and those from New York, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin told Kollar-Kotelly that the decree had done its job. The group of five other states plus Washington D.C., dubbed the California group, disagreed.

They cited a number of reasons in the new motion why Microsoft should be watched by the court until November 2012, including a fear that the company could use its market-leading IE browser to stop or hinder Web-based threats to Windows.

"Because Web-centric technologies are so dependent on Web browsers and servers for access to consumers, they are particularly susceptible to impediments that Microsoft could interpose were the Final Judgment to expire now," the California group stated in the 23-page filing. "Many of the 'new' or 'emerging' technologies cited by Microsoft's experts are dependent on a 'standards-based' browser to access computing functionality delivered by servers. For the vast majority of PCs, that browser is IE."

In essence, the states argued, Microsoft has the power to obstruct Web 2.0 moves that might make its Windows moot. "The threat that these technologies pose to Microsoft's Windows monopoly through their ability to erode the applications barrier to entry depends, in large part, on Microsoft's willingness to maintain IE as a standards-compliant browser and to continue supporting cross-platform implementations," the filing read.

Bad reputation

Microsoft hasn't hesitated to kill cross-platform support in the past; for example, it terminated IE on Mac OS X and Solaris years ago.

Moreover, without a watchdog, Microsoft could thwart attempts by the likes of Google Inc., with its Google Gears, and Adobe Systems Inc., with its Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), to add offline capabilities to Internet-based applications.

"Should the Final Judgment expire now, Microsoft has the power to tilt the playing field towards its own technology, Silverlight," said the states. "Were Microsoft to favor Silverlight in Windows 7 like it did its desktop search technology in the initial Vista release -- and as it could absent the protections of the Final Judgment -- the platform threat of competing products like Gears and AIR could be severely compromised."

In a report filed with Kollar-Kotelly in August, Microsoft claimed that the drop in Internet Explorer market share as well as up-and-coming Web 2.0 applications proved that the consent decree had served its purpose and should be retired now, not in 2012. Additionally, the company argued that the decree's narrow provisions were never meant to decide market share or technologies.

"The Final Judgments were not designed to bring about fundamental structural changes in the IT industry or to override choices made by consumers about which PC operating systems or other software products they would use," said Microsoft in the August report. "Nor was it an objective of the Final Judgments to reduce Microsoft's share of PC operating systems to any particular level."

Microsoft, as well as the other parties in the case -- the Justice Department and the states that earlier staked out a pro-expiration position -- have until Friday to file their arguments with the court. Microsoft was not available for comment Wednesday evening.

Kollar-Kotelly has scheduled a status hearing for Nov. 6, at which time she is expected to rule on the motion to extend the court's oversight.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon