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A settlement? Big deal

After years of litigation and tens of millions of dollars in lawyers' fees, what did the public wind up with? CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says, frankly speaking, not much.

Lost in all the headlines about Friday's settlement with federal trustbusters was the fact that there were really two Microsoft antitrust trials.

The first trial, conducted in a downtown Washington courtroom, was a veritable star chamber where a parade of Microsoft witnesses were mercilessly tortured by that Torquemada of Torts, David Boies. The peanut gallery watching the proceedings certainly enjoyed the spectacle of heretofore haughty Microsofties getting a public comeuppance.

It was high drama, to be sure, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson gave the "get Microsoft" crowd confidence that a judicial ruling would permanently redraw the constellation of forces in the computer industry.

But folks confused the pyrotechnics of the courtroom with the complexities and the subtleties of antitrust law. Going in, everyone knew this was going to be a tough case to prosecute, and it was made more difficult by the absence of a big manufacturer willing to take the stand and rat out Microsoft.

Without somebody from that crowd willing to say, "J'accuse!" the case hinged on the volume of paper submitted by each side in defense of its argument.

Worth the wait?
So after years of litigation and tens of millions of dollars in lawyers' fees, what did the public wind up with? Frankly speaking, not much.

The two sides essentially signed off on a non-aggression pact that compels Microsoft to act the way it should act as an upstanding corporate citizen. Microsoft isn't allowed to act like a bully. It's not allowed to cow PC makers who opt to use Windows alternatives or "platform software." It's supposed to supply information that will allow rivals to develop competing applications and make products compatible with Windows.

Big deal.

Do you believe any right-thinking PC maker is going to dump Microsoft in favor of, say, Linux for its desktop machines? The agreement only underscores the obvious: Microsoft isn't supposed to act like a predatory monopolist in the first place. Somewhere in the legal code that kind of behavior qualifies as being against the law. What's more, Microsoft gets out of all this with just a rap on its knuckles because the company won't need to change its business in any substantive way.

That's a smashing victory that justifies in spades all the money Microsoft lavished on Sullivan & Cromwell to carry out its defense.

Small wonder, then, that the 18 states participating in the antitrust lawsuit are hitting the wall. They could have gotten a better deal two years ago when it was offered and rejected it as insufficient. With "punishment" like this, Microsoft's official response should very well be, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?"

Scratching their heads
Back in the trenches, where the real work of the computer industry gets done, independent developers are left scratching their heads. Things would have been better for them if this kind of settlement had been put in place when there was still real competition in the browser market. Of course, it's all moot now because there's no longer any viable Web browsing alternative to Internet Explorer. Sorry, folks, but the likes of Opera and Mozilla aren't enough to keep Bill Gates from losing sleep.

More specifically, if Uncle Sam is throwing in the towel after all this time, they should ask themselves whether the best survival policy of dealing with Microsoft is get-along, go-along.

Can the leopard change its spots? To be sure, the unexpected always can happen (hey, how 'bout those Yankees!). A three-person panel will review Microsoft's compliance for the next five years. But government oversight isn't a substitute for market competition, and it's well to remember that the term "self-restraint" has never been part of this company's lexicon.

Bottom line for Microsoft?

Game. Set. Match.