Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson can uninstall IE 3.0 from Windows 95 in 90 seconds without breaking anything. Can you?
The short answer is yes. But is that what the judge or the Justice Department want Microsoft (MSFT) to do? Because this antitrust case involves the technology that runs most personal computers, Jackson's interpretation of whether the browser is essential to the functions of the operating system will have ramifications not just now but for years to come.
Microsoft's answer to the temporary injunction, which made the company offer a version of Windows without the browser, was essentially this: You can't completely uninstall the browser unless you want to disable a lot of other things on your system.
That interpretation--which one critic labeled a "scorched-earth" approach--of Jackson's ruling could be a deliberate attempt to force a clarification of what is required. In a sense, the tactic worked.
While alleging earlier this week that Microsoft's terms of compliance with the judge's order were in contempt of court, Justice attorney Phillip Malone was also specific about what the agency wanted. Microsoft, he wrote, must offer a current version of Windows 95 with IE uninstalled to the effect one would get by using the Add/Remove function. Get rid of the desktop icon and the user's access of IE and Justice will be happy, Malone's letter seemed to say. Justice officials today declined to elaborate.
It remains to be seen if Judge Jackson, who had a first-hand demonstration today on the ease of uninstalling the top-level browser functionality, will clarify his injunction when he rules on whether Microsoft is in contempt in January. (See related story)
Using the "Add/Remove" utility in the Windows 95 control panel, as the DOJ's Malone suggested, you can no longer browse with IE 3.0. But the procedure leaves a lot of the underlying code on the system--over 95 percent, according to a Microsoft spokesman.
If an end user can't browse but there's still "browser code" on the system, is it still browser code? Microsoft says so. To make a clean sweep from the latest OSR 2.0 upgrade of Windows 95--which Microsoft claims it must do to comply with the injunction--an entire set of key files must be deleted.
Some of these files, called DLLs, or dynamic link libraries, are necessary not just for IE 3.0 but for other programs such as Intuit's Quicken financial package that integrate Web functionality.
Working with a clean version of Windows 95 OSR 2.0, the reviews team of CNET.COM installed several applications and then removed the DLLs in question. Indeed, the applications either crash or produce error messages when they try to access the Web.
The reviews staff then started over. They removed the DLLs first and then installed the applications. Those that bundle IE 3.0 noticed that the browser was missing and prompted a reinstallation (including the underlying DLLs). The programs that didn't bundle IE 3.0 suggested downloading the browser from Microsoft's Web site.
The bottom line is that removing IE 3.0 code takes away Web functionality from certain applications. But can't Microsoft simply remove the top-level code--what most users would call the browser--and leave the so-called "engine" that other applications rely upon? Or let those applications provide the DLLs themselves?
Given the statements of the DOJ's Malone, settling on that scenario is one possible outcome of the case. It's still not known, however, if the Justice Department considers the presence of the underlying browser functionality an unfair competitive advantage.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's "terms of compliance"--offering PC makers Windows 95 OSR 2 with IE 3.0, OSR 2 with more than 200 files removed, or a two-year-old version of Windows 95 without any IE functionality--resulted in another charge of contempt, which Jackson will consider in January. He'll likely consider why Microsoft insists on stripping out the DLLs as part of a full deinstall. Many programs share DLLs with other programs; for instance, removing Word from an operating system shouldn't affect other applications that share services with the word processor.
He may also consider Microsoft's assertion that stripping out IE 3 makes Windows impossible to boot. That claim appears to be wrong. CNET tested a workaround and found that Windows worked fine without the functionality that IE adds to the system.
When Microsoft sent original equipment makers a letter listing the files to delete to completely remove IE 3.0 from the system, they included certain files--"mcf40.dll" and "rundll.32.exe," for example--that are independent of the browser. When CNET deleted IE 3.0, then "rundll.32.exe," then reinstalled IE 3.0, "rundll.32.exe" was not reinstalled.
If the company deliberately offered an extreme position this week, only at the January 13 hearing will it become clear if the strategy backfired and ultimately results in contempt of court, or if it is ultimately effective in focusing the scope of the government investigation.
CNET Reviews contributed to this report.