Timing is everything.
A key hearing was held today in Washington in the ongoing litigation between the Justice Department and Microsoft. Federal regulators believe that the Redmond, Washington-based software giant has violated a 1995 court order by including the IE browser with its Windows 95 desktop operating system.
But that didn't stop the company from requiring users of Windows NT Server, the fast-growing server-side operating system, to install the latest version of IE--release 4.01--to install components in an "Option Pack" of updated functions for Windows NT.
Subscribers of newsgroups dedicated to NT-based issues have been populating lists with questions and comments regarding the Option Pack IE requirement. "I simply have to know: Why?" inquired one email posted to an NT newsgroup. Another said there is "definitely a problem with Microsoft's newly introduced dependency on the presence of IE 4.01."
The Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack was released to manufacturing earlier this week. The pack adds Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0, Transaction Server 2.0, Message Queue Server 1.0, Certificate Server 1.0, Internet Connection Services for RAS, new data access components, Site Server Express, Internet Explorer 4.01, and Service Pack 3 for Windows NT 4.0. The pack also includes Personal Web Server 4.0 for Windows NT Workstation and Windows 95.
Microsoft executives said they are simply making sure that there is a base set of software installed on NT-base machines so that technical support can have a reasonable expectation of what is on a system when there is a problem. Furthermore, executives said, certain components of the option pack--known as DLLs--can only be downloaded using IE 4.01.
Steve Ballmer, executive vice president of sales and support at Microsoft, said in an interview with CNET's NEWS.COM that the Option Pack requirement was likely due to particular parts of the software code for the company's Web server and did not represent a calculated step to woo more users toward IE.
"I think it is an odd confluence of events. Would we have avoided this odd confluence of events? Oh, I suppose so, but not because I think there is anything bad or improper about it," said Ballmer.
"We just don't need anymore drumbeating where people are wondering whether we are these Machiavellian über thinkers who can plan out this weirdness. I think this is an odd confluence of events, frankly," he added.
The instructions for downloading the Option Pack on Microsoft's Web site are clear. It says: "Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.01 must be installed on the target system before you install the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack." The directions go on to note that "This does not prohibit your use of other browsers." Then it encourages users to "download IE 4.01 now!"
The directive does not sit well with some users of the gargantuan software company's server-based tools.
"Right now Microsoft is being a bully," Steve Pierce, who runs a product-testing lab in Albuqerque, New Mexico, said. "The latest tactic of requiring IE 4.01 with the NT Option Pack has no technical merit, just like the limiting of IP connections with NT Workstation 4.0 or requiring OEMs to ship IE."
"It is just MS trying to force their will on their customers. Some people call it rape; Microsoft says they are just doing what their customers are telling them they need. I ask Microsoft this: 'What customer asked that IE be mandated in order to install the Option Pack?'" Pierce said.
Other users of NT shrugged off the requirement. "Wish you didn't have to, not a big deal," said Mark Freytes, an NT BackOffice administrator for Think, a Web-focused marketing and design firm.
Freytes called the IE 4.01 installation step a "minor thing" and had more problems with his inability to use older versions of IE once updated ones are installed.
For still others, client requirements are not a factor with regard to the popular server OS. "It's worth the hassle," said Glenn Cameron, vice president of business development for K2 Design, an interactive advertising agency.
Cameron said 60 to 70 percent of K2 Design runs on Windows NT, with Unix-based systems comprising the rest of the company's computing resources. "Client side issues are the last things on our mind," said Cameron.
Microsoft insists that tying a browser to installation of other software is not unique. "It's a fairly common occurrence in the industry," Jon Perera, lead product manager for Windows NT Server, said. "It only has to be installed on the system, you're not required to use it."
IE 4.01 is the latest version of the company's Web browser, which rolled out earlier this week. The update fixes some issues found in the original 4.0 version.
"Of course they make a big deal of saying you can always use other browsers except they are forcing me to install a bunch of stuff I don't need and they are hoping, 'Ah heck, I have IE on the machine, just blow off Netscape Communications [software] to save disk space,'" Pierce added. "Smart business, but really annoying. This is just another 800-pound gorilla technique."
Microsoft finds itself locked in combat with Netscape in the browser market, with both sides claiming advantages and momentum in user acceptance of their software for navigating the Web.
"Once again, Microsoft is eliminating user choice and forcing their products on the market," a Netscape spokesman said in a statement.