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Microsoft tries to explain trial glitch

The company tries to explain the latest in a series of technical problems to surface in the war of words over the company's business practices.

Microsoft today offered an explanation for an embarrassing discrepancy in videotape shown at its antitrust trial yesterday, the latest in a series of technical problems to surface in the war of words over the company's business practices.

In a dramatic cross-examination yesterday, Justice Department lead prosecutor David Boies challenged the accuracy of a video purporting to demonstrate how poorly Windows 98 runs after it is modified by software that removes browsing functions from the operating system. When Boise noted that the blue title bar at the top of the computer screen in the videotape showed that Windows 98 had in fact not been modified, Microsoft senior executive Jim Allchin was forced to agree.

In interview today with CNET, Microsoft said a technical error caused the unexpected change in the title bar but insisted that the government program had removed Internet Explorer from the computer in the videotape. Tod Nielsen, Microsoft manager of software developer relations, added that the glitch did not change its underlying message: that Windows 98 runs slower when it has been stripped of Internet Explorer code.

The exchange underscores the enormously complicated nature of the Justice Department's case. In particular, the various technical issues that have been raised over Microsoft's business practices reflect the difficulty facing those now charged with mediating the heated dispute when dueling computer experts accuse each other of being deceptive.

For example, after RealNetworks chief executive Rob Glaser in July told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Windows Media Player caused RealNetworks' competing product to "break," Microsoft claimed that the problem was created by a bug in RealNetworks' RealSystemG2 player. Independent computer labs including one run by Ziff Davis backed Microsoft's version of events, and RealNetworks never responded.

Microsoft employed a similar defense to allegations by Apple Computer executive Avadis Tevanian's claims that Microsoft "sabotaged" Apple's QuickTime media player. Microsoft contended the problems QuickTime experienced when running on Windows were created by poorly written Apple software code. Outside computer consultants hired by Microsoft again backed the company's version of events.

In December, computer expert Edward Felten accused Microsoft of altering the code in Windows 98 so that it would not run properly when his program removed Internet Explorer files. Felten said that before Microsoft had gotten hold of his program--which was the focus of yesterday's videotape demonstration--Windows 98 ran just fine when modified. Microsoft denied the charge.

Internet Explorer's relationship to Windows 98 is a crucial issue in the case, in which the Justice Department (DOJ) and 19 states are accusing Microsoft of illegally bundling the two in an effort to harm Netscape Communications.

Outside of court yesterday, Boies told reporters that the discrepancy in the videotape did not mean that Microsoft had deliberately tried to mislead the court but that the glitch called into question the accuracy of Allchin's assertions that Internet Explorer cannot be removed from Windows without inflicting damage to the operating system.

Microsoft disagreed. "The bottom line is that the substance of Jim's video testimony remains the same, in that Felten's program claims to remove Internet Explorer and in fact it does not, and even makes programs slower in some cases," said Nielsen, who has been attending the trial for most of the four months it has been in session

Nielsen said the problem resulted after an installation program for the Prodigy online service removed a "register key" file from the computer being videotaped. The register key caused the title bar to display "Internet Explorer" instead of "Windows 98," he said, leading prosecutors to believe that the program being demonstrated had not been altered by Felten's removal program.