Hands up anyone who thought the Microsoft antitrust trial was going to be an awful lot more interesting? Yeah, me too. Now I'm typing too slowly, so I'm going to put my hand down.
For a start, I thought it was going to be a lot quicker. Years, decades even, of watching reruns of Perry Mason have set up a certain expectation in my mind: that the elapsed time between the commission of a crime and the verdict being handed down is well within an hour, even with commercials. That includes investigations, the gathering of evidence, the occasional fabrication of evidence that doesn't immediately present itself, and a plot twist or three. Some of the more spectacular cases take about two hours, but these are tele-movies and are generally in colour.
I should have realised the Microsoft antitrust thing would take a long time as soon as I saw that it was in colour. I held out some hope because I couldn't see Raymond Burr in any of the pictures, but clearly that hope was misplaced. Clearly, this real-life trial is not at all like Perry Mason. If it were, Steve Ballmer would have broken down in the witness stand after relentless badgering and screamed, `It was me! All the time it was me! I'm the monopoly, not Bill! Not Bill,' and then sat back down, sobbing.
If that happened, I missed it - anyone taping?
No, this thing's more like Murder One, taking an entire season to find one way or the other. For one thing, as in Murder One, all the interesting celebrity cameos were in the first few episodes. Early on, witnesses in the trial were people like the CEO of Oracle, the chairman of Intel, the founder of Netscape - significant, important people we'd all heard of before.
For the last few months, we had these bizarrely recursive witnesses. By that I mean people who are written about in the press as `a Microsoft expert witness'. An economist here, a com-puter guy there, an academic or two. It seems circular logic to me to say `the next witness was a witness', but that's essentially what's been happening. As a side note, does anyone know what becomes of these expert witnesses once there's not a trial for them to be experts in? Do they hang out on street corners waiting for something else to witness?
But I digress. After surrendering a year to this trial, the judge has finally issued `findings of fact' that indicate Microsoft is a monopoly and has used its monopoly power to harm consumers and competitors. Around the world, there came a resounding chorus of `well duh' as the finding was read out. Not surprisingly, the press was mainly bad for Microsoft. The finding doesn't contain much that offers comfort to Bill and his family. Microsoft had a press conference in which its lawyers pointed out that on page 116 the judge said Bill had nice spectacles, but that's about it.
I was amazed, though, by the number of reports that immediately leapt to what punishment the judge will impose on Microsoft, given the findings. As boring as it's been, I would have thought the computer press was watching closely enough to know the difference between findings of fact and a verdict. The simple explanation is that the finding that Microsoft is a monopoly has no immediate legal repercussions. As absurd as it may seem, the judge will now spend the next few months deliberating whether the Microsoft mono-poly is a violation of antitrust laws.
Now, I ask you, wasn't that the point in the first place? Isn't the whole big `problem' here that monopolies are against the law? This is kind of like finding that someone has indeed committed murder, then having to go back and think about whether or not that's actually a bad thing. Of course it's a bad thing, otherwise why did we have a trial? There is some talk that despite finding that Microsoft sought to attain monopoly power, and then abused that power in order to maintain its position in the market, the judge may still decide that the company didn't intentionally break the law. A sort of `attempted manslaughter' finding, if you will.
I don't fully understand American antitrust law. What I could use is some commentators, like Richie Benaud and Bill Lawry, to discuss the subtleties of the law in excruciating detail, including lines drawn on the screen.
Then again, that may make it all seem much longer.
Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au