Why Microsoft Believes Its Future Is Bright

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Don't be surprised if, every time talk of dismemberment pushes Microsoft's share price into another dive, Bill Gates and his fellow executives aren't out there leading the bargain hunters. Even as the Justice Department and the states suing the software giant moved Friday to present detailed proposals for splitting Microsoft in two to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, the corporation's executives remained supremely confident that they'd be absolved in the end. And they're not simply hoping against hope, either — they believe that Judge Jackson knowingly went out on a legal limb, to which a higher court will take a chain saw. Their focus, then, is less on softening the remedial blow in Judge Jackson's court than on overturning his ruling in the Supreme Court.

The Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had previously reversed Judge Jackson's ruling on the question of "bundling," arguing that Microsoft could legitimately include its browser in its Windows operating system if it could show this would plausibly benefit consumers. The circuit court had also urged that courts as much as possible stay out of product-design decisions. That forced Jackson to directly challenge the ruling of a superior court in order to sustain his conclusion that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws, which he did in forceful terms, arguing that the appeals court's ruling "ignores reality" and gives the corporation a free hand to engage in the illegal tactic of "tying" different products together.

Microsoft executives such as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are projecting a brash confidence despite the fact that the judge is weighing whether to split their empire in half. They're telling the world they've done nothing wrong, and that Judge Jackson's ruling will collapse like a house of cards when it gets to the Supreme Court. But whether or not their confidence proves justified, many analysts believe Microsoft shareholders will gain either way. If the company stays whole it remains NASDAQ's jewel in the crown, but even plans to split it into Baby Bills raises the prospect of investors' being given shares in both — and the AT&T experience suggests that, too, will bring them a windfall.