Middleware Meddling

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - Until now, if you're like most IT professionals, watching the feds battle Microsoft Corp. has been a spectator sport. If you love Microsoft, you've gnashed your teeth as Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered it broken in two as a lawless monopoly. If you hate Microsoft, you've cheered as an industry bully was finally brought to heel. But as a Computerworld survey in May showed, fewer than one in four of you said the case would affect your IT planning in the next two years.

But all this may be about to change. Last week, Computerworld columnist Frank Hayes [The Back Page, July 17] warned about the uncertainty that will grip Microsoft customers as it tries to implement its Microsoft.Net initiative.

Well, here's another problem, all because of a word Jackson doesn't even understand: middleware.

Middleware, simply put, is software that ties other software together.

Middleware is vitally important, but it's plumbing - expensive, complicated plumbing that most users never see.

But to Jackson, everything is middleware, and in his conduct remedies (which, like the breakup order, are being appealed), he barred Microsoft from improperly tying sales of any of its middleware to sales of its other software such as applications or operating systems.

The problem is that Jackson's definition of middleware is ridiculously broad: from Web browsers (which are really thin-client userinterface code) to Java (adevelopment language)to Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes (which is client/server groupware).

Risky Business

This is potentially devastating for Microsoft and for anyone building infrastructures around Microsoft's plans.

Who's to say that Jackson won't rule that it's illegal for Microsoft to optimize its Message Queue Server software for its Windows NT operating system?

And who's to say that the judge couldn't put limits on how Microsoft's development tools support its Distributed Component Object Model protocol for linking software components over a network? What would a forceable separation of these products do to their pricing and to how Microsoft supports and improves them over time?

Then there's Microsoft.Net, Redmond's bet-the-company strategy to create a layer of software to link all of a user's devices over the Internet.

If that sounds like middleware to you, you can bet it will sound like middleware to the judge. How will Microsoft roll out .Net for corporate customers if Jackson can fine-tune how Microsoft deals with the developers who will write applications for it and the hardware vendors that will build it into their devices?

Even if you hate Microsoft, take this logic a step further. What if the feds find that Cisco Systems Inc. has a monopoly in routers and decide it can no longer tie sales of its Internetworking Operating System to sales of its routers? Think what it would be like buying your routers and switches from Cisco, the operating systems for them from another vendor and trying to make them work together?

I don't have the answers. A start, though, might be for attorneys for Microsoft - or for major customers -to challenge Jackson's ruling on the grounds that his definition of middleware is impossibly vague, inconsistent and just plain wrong.

Even if you think we must crush Microsoft's anticompetitive practices, I predict that the hammer Jackson built could bring unforeseen - and unpleasant - consequences for corporate IT.

Am I paranoid, farsighted or both? You can let me know by visiting my forum at http://198.112.59.4/cworld_forums/Forum15/HTML/000002.html.

Robert L. Scheier is Computerworld's technology editor. Contact him at robert_scheier@computerworld.com.

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