Tangled Webs

   Compliance is Relative
Issue 3.01
Jan 07, 1998





Unless you've been living under a virtual rock for the last few months, you undoubtedly know that the US Department of Justice is suing Microsoft over the company's policy of forcing PC vendors to bundle Internet Explorer (IE) with all Windows95 computers they sell.

Microsoft contends that IE is not a separate product, but is and always has been an integral part of the Windows operating system, and as such, Microsoft has the right to demand that Windows95 be sold as "complete product."

As expected, much of the court proceedings have focused on whether IE is an application or part of the operating system. However, technically speaking, there is no meaningful way to define where the OS stops and the applications start. Likewise, "integrating" any new application into Windows is trivial. All one has to do is place some of the application's code into DLLs that also contain OS code. After a quick compile, you can accurately claim to have an integrated product. Microsoft calls this "code sharing." (In Windows, DLLs are files that provide program functionality and can be used by any application.)



First Inning: DOJ 1: Microsoft 0


The hearing's most amusing moment to date occurred after Microsoft attorneys explained that it was simply not possible to remove IE from Windows95. It would be a complex undertaking, they argued, and doing so would result in a non-functional operating system. Judge Thomas Jackson replied that his clerk had been able to uninstall IE in about 90 seconds, and that afterwards "Windows95 functioned flawlessly."

Judge Jackson later issued a preliminary injunction forbidding Microsoft from requiring computer makers to bundle IE with Windows95, and he called for the appointment of a "special master" to make sense of the myriad technical details involved in the case.

In response, Microsoft filed a petition claiming that Judge Jackson's uninstalling of IE violated established procedure and represented an improper "extra judicial investigation." They requested that the injunction be reversed and the special master not be appointed. They also announced that Microsoft would, of course, fully comply with the injunction.



Define "Comply"


Like its concept of "open standards", however, Microsoft's concept of "compliance" is a bit of a departure from common usage. Microsoft has announced two "options" for computer makers who do not wish to bundle IE with their machines. Said companies can either install a commercially worthless two-year-old version of Windows, or they can delete all the files on a list provided by Microsoft.

Microsoft is quick to point out that once those files are removed, Windows95 will not even boot, and refers to the non-functioning software as "the DOJ-designed version of Windows95." Manufacturers who want to sell neither outdated nor non-functional merchandise can "voluntarily" agree to bundle IE with Windows95. And yes, the IE icon must remain prominently on the desktop.

Interestingly enough, CNET discovered that several files on Microsoft's uninstall list (mfc40.dll and rundll32.exe, for example) are completely independent of IE and are not even installed by the Internet Explorer installer.

The mud is flying fast and furious between the DOJ, which insists that Microsoft's actions put them in contempt of court, and Microsoft which claims that they are doing exactly what they have been ordered to do, and that the DOJ is just hopelessly confused about the whole thing. Nothing is likely to be resolved before the next hearing, which is scheduled for January 13.



Looking Ahead


Whether or not Microsoft is found in contempt will ultimately prove to be incidental. What is most directly at stake here is not US$1 million-a-day fines, but the future of Windows98. The most significant change -- arguably the only significant change -- in Windows98 is the extent to which Microsoft has integrated IE into the operating system. A court order to decouple IE from Windows98 would be a rather extreme, but completely plausible, outcome. If that happens, there will be little reason for consumers to upgrade.

Microsoft is steadfastly maintaining that the current hearings deal only with Windows95, and that they will not effect Windows98 in any way. At best, this seems to be wishful thinking. Windows95 is at the end of its product lifecycle, and the agreements with the manufactures are already in place. Whatever the ruling, it will have little impact on Windows95. However, if the court finds that the current integration of IE and Windows95 violates the consent decree, it seems likely they will find that the tighter integration of Windows98 violates it as well.

Microsoft personal are working hard to prevent such a ruling. The most creative argument thus far comes from William Neukom, Microsoft's senior vice president for law and corporate affairs, who argued (I am not making this up) that ordering Microsoft to decouple IE from Windows98 could endanger the entire US economy. He backed up the assertion by pointing to stock market drops he claimed were caused by Microsoft missing software release dates.


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