This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Media Unspun email newsletter and is Copyright 2002 by Keith Dawson.
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Judge to Microsoft: Never Mind

As all the world now knows, late in the day on Friday the federal judge in the Microsoft antitrust case issued a ruling favorable to Microsoft and critical of the coalition of state attorneys general pushing for more restraints on the monopolist than the Justice Department’s proposed settlement had offered. Several scribes quoted this passage from Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling: “This suit, however remarkable, is not the vehicle through which plaintiffs can resolve all existing allegations of anticompetitive conduct which have not been proved or for which liability has not been ascribed.”

In other words, as pointed out most sharply by Brier Dudley in the Seattle Times, the states’ case had a crucial weakness that Microsoft’s defense exploited with great success: “the failure of the government to prove absolutely that Microsoft’s illegal acts helped the company maintain its monopoly.” That, and the judge’s narrow reading of her mandate from the appeals court, added up to no punishment and light regulation for the convicted monopolist. The judge did chide Microsoft, according to the New York Times’ Amy Harmon, for “a tendency to minimize the effects of its illegal conduct,” and she forbade Microsoft to bully other companies or even to threaten them.

News outlets covered the big story in expected ways. In one of the most-linked stories over the weekend according to blogdex, Salon’s Scott Rosenberg wrote that the judge had rubber-stamped a settlement that “the hollow men of the Bush Justice Department had already gutted.” The Register’s headline called the outcome “rotten with loopholes.” And the Wall Street Journal, bastion of free-market capitalism, offered restrained coverage and an op-ed piece by a law professor who has served as a consultant to Microsoft.

So is the case finally over? Wired’s scribe wrote that the outcome “offered the closest thing yet to a conclusion” in a battle that began when the browser wars and Java were big news. Microsoft’s Bill Gates said, “We’re not seeing anything that would be cause for appeal,” according to the Journal. The San Jose Mercury News reported that the California attorney general was disinclined to appeal. Other outlets quoted the more pumped-up AG from Connecticut, but even he didn’t suggest an appeal was in order. Only the Journal indicated that an appeal by the states is likely. “We’ve got plenty of fight,” the paper quoted the Iowa AG.

A number of papers speculated on the effect the ruling will have on Microsoft. (One indication: The company’s stock rose 6% in after-hours trading on Friday.) USA Today figured that the company is now in for unimpeded growth. For the Times’ Steve Lohr, the net effect on Microsoft will be minimal, even while it adjusts to being “a court-decreed monopoly … in the process of becoming regulated.”

Other reporters focused on Microsoft competitors and the world they will now inhabit. The Boston Globe’s Chris Gaither anchored his “800-pound gorilla” story in the bleak tale of UpShot, a poster-boy Microsoft partner company that is now facing direct competition in its market from the giant. Writing for Salon, Farhad Manjoo crafted a carefully balanced account of Microsoft’s reaming out of in the late 1990s, reminiscent of James Gleick’s prophetic 1995 article, “Making Microsoft Safe For Capitalism.” Gleick had sketched the tales of Stac Electronics, Lotus, Borland, WordPerfect, and others ground up by Microsoft. And the New York Times’ John Markoff closed his “life with Microsoft” account with a look back at GO Corporation’s early attempt to establish a market for pen-based computers, which was crushed by the appearance of Microsoft’s Pen Windows. In his 1998 book “Barbarians Led by Bill Gates,” the lead engineer on the Pen Windows project, Marlin Eller, wrote of bucking up a discouraged co-worker after Pen Windows shipped but was not selling many copies. “Pen Windows was a winner. We shut down GO. They spent $75 million pumping up this market, we spent $4 million shutting them down. They’re toast. That company is dead. We did our job.” - Keith Dawson

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