As reported here and elsewhere, Microsoft's alleged anti-competitive practices have landed it in a world of trouble.
But while the big hitters like the U.S. Department of Justice, Sun Microsystems, and Netscape do battle with Bill Gates in the limelight, perhaps one of the strongest cases has been brought by a little Utah company called Caldera.
Caldera's 1996 suit claims that Microsoft engaged in illegal anti-competitive measures to accomplish the defeat of the operating system the company was marketing. "By inhibiting competing operating systems' access to PC manufacturers," the suit argues, "Microsoft's exclusionary contracts slow innovation and deprive consumers of an effective choice among competing operating systems."
Caldera has not specified any damages sought. But some say they could be awarded a percentage of the profits enjoyed by Microsoft since 1991, a sum that will likely amount to billions of dollars.
Originally scheduled to be heard in November, the suit has been rescheduled for hearings next spring. Microsoft's lawyers, citing the swirling mass of other suits they've had to deal with, have made their best efforts to delay it even further. But when it comes to trial, Bill Gates and his allies will still have to contend with the following allegations: • That Microsoft announced the existence of a product similar to Caldera's operating system more than a year before it had actually been developed, chilling the competitive market. This practice, of which Microsoft has been accused repeatedly, is known as "vaporware." When the new system was finally released (more than a year later), it still failed to match the technical specs of Caldera's product. • That Microsoft's licensing agreements with computer manufacturers forced the manufacturers to pay a royalty for Microsoft's system, even if another product was to be used. Due to razor-thin profit margins, PC manufacturers are naturally loathe to license additional products. Some manufacturers claim they were told that Windows would cost double if the Microsoft system was not included.
In other words, the problem for Caldera-and others-has been that Microsoft doesn't play nice with competitors. As a matter of fact, as evidenced by the most recent barrage of lawsuits, even some in the federal government believe that Microsoft has done its damnedest to unfairly undermine, subsume, and intimidate any firm with the audacity to attempt to compete with the Redmond, Washington behemoth.
That was apparently the case when the Utah-based Caldera bought the now nearly forgotten operating system Digital Research Disk Operating System (DR-DOS) from Novell in 1996. DR-DOS, like Microsoft's system (MS-DOS) is a platform upon which a graphical interface such as Windows can run.
Unfortunately, for Caldera it seems it was also a direct competitor to Microsoft's DOS. Even so, Caldera has experienced small victories in this case already.
In February, the company achieved a minor triumph in its complaint against Microsoft. While the original complaint charged that Microsoft deliberately reinforced the false perception that Windows could only be run on MS-DOS, the courts allowed Caldera to expand their suit to include the noted anti-competitive licensing agreement pertaining Windows.
Then, in July, a federal judge in Utah forced Microsoft to hand over key parts of Windows 95 "source code," the secret programming details that are part of any software, to Caldera.
This development allows Caldera to prove whether Windows 95 can indeed run atop DR-DOS, which in turn may show that DR-DOS was technically capable of competing with Microsoft's platform. Echoing a common claim against Microsoft, DR-DOS proponents maintain that MS-DOS was technically inferior but bolstered by marketing blitzes and underhanded licensing agreements.
In addition, Caldera technicians will have an opportunity to study firsthand the alleged error messages that the Windows installation routine apparently provides to users of DR-DOS. Some claim that even though no significant incompatibilities exist, Microsoft intentionally inserted such messages to stifle any competition.
During the last two months, more allegations have come forth. Today, Caldera additionally claims: • Microsoft engineers discussed inserting a bug in Windows that would prevent it from running on anything other than MS-DOS. • Archived email messages dealing with Microsoft's efforts to eliminate competition in Germany may have been purposefully destroyed in an effort to protect Microsoft from liability.
To those who claim that "DOS is dead", Caldera counters that the future will emerge from such embedded systems, as well as Internet appliances and other variations from the PC-centric world. The technology inherent in DR-DOS, they claim, will drive that future. DR-DOS is available from Caldera's website at www.caldera.com.
In the meantime, Bill Gates is testifying before federal prosecutors this week, reportedly grimacing, frowning, and scratching his head before answering difficult questions about his corporation's alleged attempts to drive Netscape out of the browser market by giving Internet Explorer away for free.
There are also claims that Microsoft, in 1995, offered to "divvy up" the browser market with Netscape, which is in violation of civil and criminal antitrust laws.
Clearly, the Microsoft saga is not over. But although Gates and company may squirm out from under the current round of litigation, they'll have Caldera to deal with next.