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Old Microsoft DNA still at work?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks whether old patterns of behavior are again coming to the fore.

In July 1994, the Justice Department and Microsoft settled charges that the software maker violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. A judge criticized the agreement as toothless and briefly held up deal, but the government ultimately had its way. You doubtless recall how the story turned out: Left free to pursue its bliss, Microsoft landed back in hot water four years later. The government then complained the software maker had exploited its market dominance to drive competitors out of business and the sides headed to trial.

After an appellate court voided most of a harsh lower-court ruling, the subsequent deal once again left Microsoft free to go about its business with little more than a slap on the wrist. The lesson for smaller software makers was clear: Why stick your neck out when even the might of the United States government was not enough to force Microsoft to cry uncle? In the business argot of our day, the potential return on investment is not worth the effort.

I was reminded of all this when CEO Michael Robertson came to town to talk up his company, Lindows.com. Robertson, the impresario who created MP3.com, is still tussling with Microsoft over the name of his company's flagship product, Lindows.

Microsoft, which has obvious incentive to block any would-be rival desktop operating system, is suing for trademark infringement. The argument centers on whether the term "windows" should be classified a generic term. Given that his company markets a Linux-based operating system, Robertson had to know that his naming convention would attract Microsoft's attention. But let's leave that issue for another day.

There is potentially a more explosive item on the agenda: Robertson claims that Microsoft has used its muscle to steer would-be business partners away from doing business with Lindows.com. If true, certain folks in Washington will want to know the details. So far, however, Robertson refuses to name names--at least not for the record. And he doubts any of the parties concerned will make a beeline for the microphones either.

Lindows.com's CEO claims that Microsoft has used its muscle to steer would-be business partners away from doing business with his company.
Microsoft says the allegations are bunk but the timing of Robertson's charge comes only a few months after RealNetworks filed a $1 billion lawsuit accusing Microsoft of illegally using its Windows monopoly to limit consumer choice in digital media.

Among other things, Real claims Microsoft used contractual restrictions and monetary incentives to "force PC makers to accept Windows PC operating systems with the bundled Windows Media Player and to restrict the ability of PC makers to preinstall or promote competing digital media players."

Substitute "Internet browser" for "Windows Media Player" and the complaint sounds eerily familiar to the government accusation that Microsoft sought to choke off Netscape's access to distributors.

No doubt, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser, an ex-Microsoft employee, has a score to settle with his old company and former mentor Bill Gates. Still, he's a not a goof and neither is Robertson. Glaser may have an ax to grind but he remains a serious business executive.

That's why I'd like know whether all this is simply a forgettable case of the usual hardball habits at Microsoft--or something more. The question remains open for investigation.