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Back to square one in Redmond?

Is Microsoft succeeding in its attempt to play high-tech hardball with a federal judge in its antitrust case?

WASHINGTON--Is Microsoft (MSFT) succeeding in its attempt to play high-tech hardball with a federal judge in the Justice Department's antitrust case?

In a frustrating day yesterday for the software giant, MS and the $1 million question its expert witness was belittled and its legal team scolded by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Now, as the company's legal battle progresses, observers are wondering if Microsoft's strategy of introducing arcane technospeak into a federal hearing was meant to intentionally obfuscate the proceedings--and bamboozle Judge Jackson and the government--or if that was simply the only way the company knew how to present its arguments.

"Were they trying to be cute, or was that unintentional? It's hard to tell," said Laura Lederman, an analyst with William Blair & Company who attended this week's hearing. "It's not the type of thing that a federal judge typically sees."

In many ways, Microsoft's legal tactics in the case closely mirror its business strategy. That ultimately may prove to be Redmond's downfall.

Microsoft is used to playing by its own time-tested and wildly successful rules. Its product executives and development managers are accustomed to being the smartest people in the room and the only people who really understand how Windows and other software is built.

"I don't think they know any other way," Lederman said.

The problem is, apparently, that that strategy isn't working. Jackson and the DOJ seem out to prove that they can't be muscled by Microsoft, no matter how successful the company is, and technological smoke screens have not shown to fare well so far in court.

Microsoft claims that it cannot separate its Internet Explorer Web browser from the Windows operating system in the manner ordered by Jackson, because doing so would result in a useless version of Windows.

To illustrate this point, company attorneys introduced into evidence a wall-sized poster showing the computer files that constitute IE, along with a block diagram depicting the internal architecture of the browser.

The company's witness, Microsoft vice president David Cole, delivered a product demo/testimony that delved into a can of worms full of system services, stub executables, and macro languages, underwhelming the dozens of reporters and analysts gathered in the courtroom and literally lulling at least one television reporter to break into window-rattling snores.

Cole sounded more like a product manager touting the benefits and gee-whiz features of his latest release than a witness in an antitrust case.

A conversation overheard at the back of courtroom after a heated exchange between Jackson and Microsoft attorneys went like this: "This is really getting interesting now," a spectator said. "Don't worry, they'll start talking about software again," replied another.

Many observers remarked that the government's witness--computer consultant and author Glenn Weadock--was the more accessible of the two, simply because he was more skilled at explaining arcane computer lingo.

Attempts by Microsoft's lawyers to discredit Weadock by implying his technical acuity lived somewhere far south of that of the company's operating system architects only seemed to divide the courtroom further.

At several points during the hearing, Jackson lobbed questions at both Weadock and Cole in an attempt to put testimony on a more familiar level. He asked why users would want to install one browser and remove another; what a default browser was; and, more importantly, if Microsoft intentionally shipped a defective operating system.

Whatever the outcome, the case may well be remembered as a landmark in high-tech litigation simply because it led a federal judge to ponder the meaning of "dynamic link libraries" and the intricacies of software development.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as the saying goes, and that may be deadly for Microsoft's high-profile case.