The common software files at the center of the latest twist in the federal case against Microsoft (MSFT) can be viewed in two ways: as necessary components that developers need to take advantage of the Windows operating system or potentially manipulative tools that could be used to extend the company's dominance to other applications, such as Web browsing.
After U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson disclosed that he had uninstalled Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 in 90 seconds last week, a Microsoft spokesman responded by noting that only a portion of the browser was uninstalled and numerous necessary files remained on the system.
Although nobody has claimed so far that Microsoft's reliance on common files is illegal, the components could become an issue as the software giant's development practices increasingly come under the court's scrutiny.
In several cases involving internally developed Microsoft and third-party products, downloading or installing versions of IE is required--for a variety of reasons. Some of these involve functions critical to the performance of the software; others are seemingly expressed as random tie-ins to the browser.
Some applications need IE for the software to work properly, while other applications require IE to view items that also could be viewed using competing browser software, such as that provided by rival Netscape Communications.
These widely used common software components, called DLLs (dynamic link libraries), allow applications to interact with the base Windows operating system. DLLs are among several technologies at the heart of the Justice Department's case against Microsoft.
A hearing is scheduled for January 13 to determine if Microsoft is in violation of a preliminary order issued by the court that is intended to temporarily stop the company from forcing PC makers to ship IE with Windows 95, the OS included on approximately nine out of every ten PCs shipped.
But Microsoft's IE tie-ins via DLL files go far beyond the hotly contested Web browser market. In some instances, Microsoft requires users of applications that take advantage of certain files to download or install IE even if an application does not have any connection to the Web, as in the case of a North Dakota developer's program.
Other internally developed Microsoft programs are tied to IE. Visual Basic 5.0, a developer's kit for writing programs in the Basic programming language, requires users to install IE so that HTML-based help files can be viewed, according to a Microsoft spokesman, even though those same files can be viewed using any other browser. Visual Basic 5.0 has been shipping since February of last year.
The latest beta release of Outlook 98, posted on the company's Web site last week, requires users to download or install IE 4.01. Outlook 98 is an email client software package that interoperates with a variety of back-end server-based email systems.
"What we're doing is leveraging IE as a component of Outlook," explained Scott Gode, product manager for Outlook. "It's somewhat new to Outlook, but it's not new for the industry."
Gode, as well as third-party developers, noted that new versions of popular applications such as Quicken's Suite 98 financial software package require users to install IE.
Moreover, Gode said Microsoft requires the IE download to minimize the amount of new software code on a client machine. He said Outlook users can leverage the components of IE necessary to operate the email client without launching the browsing application.
"If we were to force people to use IE, I could see where critics are heading, but the fact that we leverage certain components of IE would lead me to disagree," he added.
A similar situation occurs during the installation of Microsoft's Money 98, a competitor to Quicken. A new version of Qualcomm's Eudora email client also requires IE 4.01 for all of the functions to work.
Also, a recent update to Microsoft's fast-growing server OS, Windows NT, requires users to download IE 4.01 in order to receive the latest server software updates that share certain files, something that has distressed some users.
In other instances, third-party applications that use the functionality found in Windows are victims of Microsoft's internal development cycle. The latest release of First Aid 98 from CyberMedia, a program that fixes many Windows-based problems automatically, required users to have IE versions 3.02 or higher for the company's software to work.
Company executives said the glitch was due to the fact that Microsoft had not released an update to Windows 95 yet that included certain files when First Aid 98 was released in October. Users with the latest OS update--OSR 2.5--do not have to rely on IE, but only recent purchasers of computers will have this latest version of Windows 95.
"The only way Microsoft is delivering these updated extensions is through IE 3.02 or higher," said J.J. Schoch, product manager for First Aid 98. "That's the bottom line."
Some users have complained to the company that it is forcing them to download IE, according to company executives.
"It's just kind of a timing issue," Schoch said. "People are just wondering why, especially Netscape users who think we are pushing IE on them."
Schoch added that the DLLs give his company's software what it needs to compete. "It gives us a really big advantage in our long-term strategy...I think if it's misunderstood, it could be seen as a religious battle. We're pretty neutral."
One Netscape user who planned to add First Aid 98 to the 83 PCs in his business complained about the requirement in an email message to CNET's NEWS.COM. "I will find another product which will not force additional software to be installed on our PCs," wrote the administrator.