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Note to Microsoft: Lose one suit or another

In early October, Sun Microsystems filed a suit accusing the software giant of fragmenting the Java programming language. Not a month later, the Justice Department is trying to slap the company with a $1 million daily fine for leveraging their OS monopoly in the browser software market. What may be less apparent is that Microsoft is taking opposing stances in each case.

As anyone with a modem should know, Microsoft is currently fighting two major legal battles. In early October, Sun Microsystems filed a suit accusing the software giant of fragmenting the Java programming language. Not a month later, the Justice Department is trying to slap the company with a $1 million daily fine for leveraging their OS monopoly in the browser software market.

What may be less apparent is that Microsoft is taking opposing stances in each case.

Earlier this week, CNET's NEWS.COM quoted Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray on the DOJ's findings against his company: "We do not believe that computer manufacturers can break apart Windows and choose to ship one part or another," he said. "We license Windows to be shipped in its entirety by all computer makers so users have a consistent experience."

So what about Java? Sun doesn't believe that Redmond should be allowed to break apart Java and selectively ship one part or another. That subverts the "write once, run anywhere" mantra. I understand that Microsoft is a large organization, but how many sides of the fence can it sit on at once?

"We paid a license fee to Sun and we certainly are doing the best job we can in compatibility," according to chairman Bill Gates.

Really? The specifics of that legal battle involve the substitution of several Windows-specific classes for generic ones in the programming language. Doing the old Folgers Crystals switch can hardly be Microsoft's best effort toward compatibility. What if Compaq had said it was doing the best it could in keeping Windows together? With its license revoked, the PC maker would be doing the best it could at going out of business.

What bothers me isn't that Microsoft looks two-faced. Opinions can (and often do) change over time. The part that steams my shorts is that Bill and company are getting away with it.

Microsoft could write off the $365 million annual fine as a charge and still spend billions on development. It could pay Sun's claim and not even feel the bite beyond this quarter. It could say "to hell with both of you" and nothing would change. Instead, it drops its collective jaw and feigns shock at each suit.

While I'm sure that Microsoft is right in one of the battles, I couldn't begin to tell you which one it is. It certainly isn't both.