Cyberspace's Paul Revere saddles up for broadband

Microsoft and the US Department of Justice are back in the ring but the software giant is more hesitant about throwing its weight around these days.

So says David Farber, a key technical witness in the US Government's anti-trust case against Microsoft.

Farber is a larger-than-life character who attracts nicknames such as the Paul Revere of Cyberspace and the grandfather of the Internet. He calls his testimony in front of Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson during the first phase of the anti-trust trial "the most stressful day and a half of my life".

But Farber believes it has made a difference, even though some of the judge's findings were overturned on appeal.

The lengthy legal process, now entering a new stage under Judge Colleen Kollar Kotelly, "hasn't broken Microsoft's monopoly practices or cured its tendencies," says Farber.

"But there now is a hesitation about doing things that normally it wouldn't have thought twice about doing."

As evidence, Farber cites Microsoft's decision to compromise on the issue of desktop icons for the new XP operating system.

Microsoft has agreed to give PC makers some leeway about what components of XP's feature set they activate and will allow them to add new ones if they wish.

Another sign of the new reality is that the Office application suite for XP is the first Office upgrade that doesn't define a new format.

"It means you don't have to buy XP just so you can read documents sent by friends who have upgraded," says Farber.

"My guess is that is the result of Microsoft realising it needs to be a lot more careful in future."

Thanks to the case, Microsoft's partners can now speak up with "a little less fear that they will be squished", he believes.

The bundling of Internet Explorer with the operating system, which helped trigger the anti-trust case, is no longer being pursued by the DoJ.

However, it is still seeking to restrain Microsoft from forcing PC makers to exclude other software vendors' icons from the PC desktop.

Farber says he deliberately avoided rubbishing individual Microsoft executives during his testimony.

"I didn't like what Microsoft was doing and I said that, but I didn't go out of my way to start ripping apart Microsoft's people."

Among industrial research labs in the US, Microsoft's Redmond facilities are probably pouring $US500 million annually into research on artificial intelligence and is also working in nanotechnology.

That still leaves the company well behind IBM whose research lab budget last year was $US5 billion and which was granted an average of 11 patents per day in the course of the year.

Farber made his comments while a guest of Australian technology services company EGlobal which is backing a US roadshow called Corroboree to give exposure to Asia-Pacific region technology developers.

Farber is a long-time pillar of US high-speed networking research efforts and recently served as chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission.

After 30 years on the leading edge of high-speed networking, Farber is still bullish about the prospects of the IT industry despite its current downturn.

"The dotcom bubble was not a train wreck in any sense of the word. A lot of people saw their wealth vanish overnight, but if you look around Silicon Valley now, you are seeing investments being made."

A high-tech mobile phone antenna company of which he is a co-founder "had little or no problem raising $15 million a couple of weeks ago on good terms", he says.

The overall IT industry may have slid into a mature phase but when it comes to the economy-shaping impact of things like broadband applications, "the fat lady hasn't sung yet".

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