Microsoft Looks to Have Nixed a Deal

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It appears Microsoft is calling the government's bluff. Last fall, when District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson took the unusual tack of splitting Microsoft's antitrust trial in half, he gave Bill Gates et al. a chance to hammer out a deal with the Justice Department. But the fact that the second half of the trial commenced on Tuesday after four months of mediation hearings indicates that Microsoft doesn't want to play ball. And Jackson, who's expected to deliver a verdict in the case in about six weeks, seemed intent on letting Microsoft know that if it locks horns with the feds, it won't walk away unscathed. The judge is mulling three possible punishments: requiring Microsoft to divulge design secrets of its operating system; forcing it to alter its business practices; and breaking it up into three "Baby Bills."

On Tuesday Jackson likened Bill Gates' firm to John Rockefeller's Standard Oil — the granddaddy of all American trusts — and then rejected as nonsensical a Microsoft line of defense based on copyright protections. But the general thinking is that, barring an unexpected bit of mercy by the court, Microsoft will try to drag the proceedings through years of appeals, by which point the original suit might no longer apply to the software market. But by invoking Standard Oil, which owned 90 percent of the U.S. oil market before it was broken up in 1910, Jackson sent out a warning siren that no firm, no matter how powerful or vital to the national economy, is beyond the reach of the federal scalpel.