MS/DOJ: Microsoft decision due out Friday afternoon

The federal judge overseeing a remedy in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust case will issue her opinion late Friday afternoon, the court said Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly gave no hint during the remedy hearing this spring how she might rule.

Although Friday’s decision probably won’t be the end of the Microsoft case, it will be one of its more dramatic turning points in a landmark antitrust case that began in the fall of 1998.

Over a period of four months, Judge Kollar-Kotelly heard from a long list of witnesses over what should be done to satisfy the U.S. Court of Appeals decision that Microsoft illegally maintained its operating system monopoly.

Depending on how Kollar-Kotelly rules, either the non-settling states that refused to go along with a deal between the Department of Justice and Microsoft reached last year, the U.S., or the company itself may appeal Friday’s ruling.

This remedy phase follows an appeals court decision one year ago this month that rejected a lower court ruling to break up the company but upheld a finding that Microsoft had illegally maintained its monopoly in the operating systems market.

The U.S. and half of the 18 states involved in the case settled soon after the appeals court decision. But nine other states – California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Utah and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia – continued the case, seeking tougher remedies.

Throughout the remedy hearing, which began March 18, Microsoft’s lawyers attempted to show that the states’ proposed remedies were too broad, exceeding the scope of liabilities that the Court of Appeals outlined last year and potentially creating havoc for not only Microsoft, but also for the PC industry at large.

Perhaps the most controversial remedy proposed by the states would force Microsoft to sell an “unbound” version of Windows – one free from additional programs such as a browser and media player that are referred to as middleware – so that PC makers and end users could replace those programs with ones from competitors.

In a dramatic reaction to that proposal, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates testified in April that the company would be forced to pull Windows from the market if the remedy was accepted by Kollar-Kotelly

Removing such middleware from Windows would cripple other aspects of the operating system, such as the help program, Gates said in court. Because the proposed remedy says that the unbound version of Windows must be a functional equivalent to the full operating system, minus the removed middleware, Gates said there’s no way Microsoft could satisfy the provision. That would force the company to stop selling Windows to avoid violating the remedy.

The federal remedy imposes a series of business practices changes on Microsoft, and gives more flexibility to PC makers by allowing them to substitute third-party applications and remove end-user access to Windows programs. But the underlying code stays.

Microsoft was also required to disclose its interfaces under the settlement, something that it has already begun to do.