Victims of Microsoft

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WASHINGTON: So you say Mr. Gates did bad things to you? America Online and Apple are the latest victims in the Justice Department's parade of top tech firms allegedly abused by Microsoft. AOL's contention: That the software giant sweet-talked it into an exclusive (and illegal) deal, where AOL would get a cute launch button on the Windows desktop -- if it sold its service-provider soul exclusively to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Netscape would be provided only if users asked for it - a deal that Redmond enforced by playing Big Brother. "Microsoft has carefully monitored references to Navigator and Netscape on the AOL service," said AOL senior vice president David Colborn, the government's latest witness Wednesday.

Microsoft attorney John Warden shot back with a now-familiar defense: Explorer is a better product. Isn't that why we won the contract? But Colburn insisted it was realpolitik, not quality, that drove them into bed with Microsoft. Poor old Apple, meanwhile, claimed rougher treatment at Redmond's hands before its own Explorer deal: Microsoft "threatened to abandon the Mac," according to a memo from Apple CFO Fred Anderson unveiled in court Tuesday. All in all, it's not the best prologue Microsoft could have hoped for in advance of Bill Gates's taped testimony -- which will be shown on Thursday, after all. The way the government's case is going, Gates will be facing assault and battery charges by then.