Bristol ruling may be wake-up call to Microsoft critics

Microsoft's victory today over software maker Bristol Technology is a strong psychological win for the company and may give pause to other rivals.

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Microsoft's victory today over Bristol is a strong psychological win for a company whose image has been tarnished by a series of lawsuits, but it is unlikely to give Microsoft much legal traction in its battle in other arenas, some observers said.

Still, a federal jury's unanimous verdict that Bristol had not met its burden in proving Microsoft violated Connecticut and federal antitrust charges, is likely to give Microsoft opponents pause before they file their own antitrust lawsuits, some attorneys added.

The jury, convened in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, Connecticut, said that Bristol had failed to prove that distinct markets existed for sales of workstation and server operating systems. For the jury to decide other issues in the case, such as whether Microsoft monopolized the workstation industry, it first had to agree that the "relevant markets" existed.

The particular dynamics at play in the Bristol lawsuit mean that the win is not likely to carry much weight in separate court cases that also accuse Microsoft of violating antitrust laws, legal observers said.

"It's certainly a welcome victory for Microsoft, but it doesn't end its antitrust problems, and I don't think it's going to have a major impact on the outcome of any of their other cases," said John Lopatka, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina. "Microsoft may win the other cases brought against it, but not because of this victory."

In the case carrying the highest stakes, the Justice Department and 19 states accuse Microsoft of engaging in a broad pattern of conduct designed to reinforce its alleged monopoly in operating systems and to secure a new monopoly on the Internet. A final outcome in the case is not expected until late this year or early next year.

A separate private suit filed by software maker Caldera is set to go to trial next January. Orem, Utah-based Caldera claims Microsoft used its dominance in the software industry in the late 1980's and early 1990's to crush competition from a product called DR-DOS, which Caldera obtained in 1996. Caldera is seeking $1.6 billion in damages.

Both cases attempt to define a market for operating systems for personal computers, which is far different than the market Bristol was attempting to define.

Microsoft senior corporate attorney Steve Aeschbacher said that the Bristol jury's verdict was "helpful," but agreed that is was not "dispositive" or legally binding on the other cases.

"One takeaway from this case is that it shows that...there's intense competition in the software industry and that Microsoft's actions have been pro-competitive," Aeschbacher said in an interview. "Those are very powerful messages that are equally true in other cases."

Still, the verdict may serve as a wake-up call to Microsoft critics, said some attorneys. "The Bristol case...signals that you must show more than hardball business practices to prevail" in an antitrust case, said Hillard Sterling, an antitrust litigator at Gordon & Glickson. It also is likely to make opponents considering filing antitrust claims against Microsoft think twice.

"This is going to demonstrate that private plaintiffs are going to have one tough row to hoe against Microsoft," said Lewis Noonberg, an antitrust attorney at Piper & Marbury. "It will discourage the Calderas and the Bristols."