AT LARGE: Splitting headache

I'm really worried. You might remember that last year, there were two big stories that made life easy for those of us whose livelihoods revolve around filling pages with black squiggles: Y2K and the DoJ. Even if nothing else was happening in the world, these two could be relied upon to provide fodder for the tech pages.

Then, Y2K was something of a fizzer. Granted, this was because the widespread panic had largely resulted in the problem having been fixed - but it made a lot of tech journalists look kind of silly. It especially made that twit who was living in a hermetically sealed RV with stocks of freeze-dried food look very silly, but he had it coming.

What I'm worried about now is that DoJ may end up being just as much of a fizzer. It's been an interesting story because there is a certain element of the populace that is baying for Microsoft's blood. The company has been monopolistic, it has been predatory, it has abused the industry, stifled its rivals, harmed consumers, made lousy software and caused ring-around-the-collar. All the trial stuff to this stage has been kind of obvious and boring, merely proving these facts which everyone already knew.

What some people wanted deep down was not a trial, but a public and humiliating punishment for Microsoft. The legal system no longer allows for Bill Gates to be put in stocks and made to stand in the street whilst people throw rotting fruit at him, but this would have been required to satisfy some of the company's enemies. Like children whose big brother refuses to play fair, they wanted Mum to intervene and make things right while they stood back and made rude faces.

The DoJ and 17 of the 19 States have submitted their suggested remedies to the judge. Without going into too much of the details, suffice to say that the document essentially amounts to Mum stepping in and letting the other kids make rude faces. It's excessive, it's over the top, and it will be overturned on appeal as surely as I could lose a little weight. Two of the States, Ohio and Illinois, did not lend their support to the remedy proposal, probably because "tarrin' an' featherin' " wasn't available to them.

The central proposal is that the company be broken up into two smaller (but still frighteningly huge) companies: one that does operating systems and one that does applications. This may sound sensible, but consider this: the fact that Microsoft is a provider of both productivity applications and operating systems was not a central issue of the trial. That the DoJ's remedy revolves around that fact suggests that the Government failed to understand the issues it was trying to prove. It's especially obvious when you see that the remedy allows the operating system company to continue to distribute Internet Explorer - that was a central issue.

Then there's the really weird stuff. The company's Research and Development arm will be separated from the OS company and made wholly part of the Apps company. Like Microsoft's Windows division doesn't need to do R&D. How would it help consumers and ignite the flame of innovation to prevent Microsoft from developing Windows into a better product?

Add to this the provision that neither Gates nor Steve Ballmer will be allowed to invest in both the OS company and the Apps company - they'll each have to choose one. This would make sense if either of these individuals had been convicted of a crime or in some way implicated in wrongdoing. Neither of them was tried, neither was convicted. Neither was shown to have individually done anything wrong. This is just rude faces. The company was on trial, not Gates and Ballmer.

And will consumers be helped by having a monopolistic OS provider and a separate monopolistic applications provider? I doubt it. Even without the rest of MS, the Office division on its own will have billions upon billions of dollars in its armoury, more than commanding market share, and a DoJ reluctant to go back into the courtroom against it for at least another decade - plenty of time to crush the remaining opposition from Lotus, Corel and StarOffice.

The DoJ should have suggested remedies that would actually have helped, like making Gates wear contact lenses. I mean, the bespectacled geek thing is sooo 20th century. Or how about separating that talking paper clip thing from Office applications, and forcing it to fend for itself? It wouldn't last long. And while we're breaking stuff up, how about dividing Bardot, aka Popstars, into five separate, vaguely pretty but basically talentless urchins on the lookout for a break? Nothing to do with Microsoft, sure, but hey, it couldn't hurt.

Microsoft is required to issue its own remedy proposal in a couple of weeks. Quite likely, that document will seem absurdly lenient, in hopes that Judge Jackson will compromise down the middle. If I were Gates, I wouldn't bother. Just go along with the DoJ, let Jackson rubber-stamp it, and watch it crumble on appeal. No punishment, no rude faces, and, much to my chagrin, no story.

Matthew JC. Powell can't think of anything to put here. Suggestions should be sent to mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au

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