Linux has long been cited as one of the chief potential rivals to Windows' dominance in arguments throughout the five-year-old Microsoft antitrust case. And last week, opponents of the 2001 Bush administration settlement returned to court to appeal against the ruling.
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Massachusetts, the sole holdout state case and the first to seek action against Microsoft, wants the settlement to require that the Microsoft Office suite be ported to Linux.
"In today's environment, Office is the key to the barrier of entry for commercial users," said Steven Kuny, the attorney representing Massachusetts at a US Court of Appeals hearing last week.
The state's remedy proposal also requires an open-source version of Internet Explorer, as well as provisions to ensure that Windows includes Java.
Two trade groups, the Computer & Communications Industry Association and the Software & Information Industry Association, which represent Microsoft's competitors, are also challenging the settlement.
Whether the court will send the case back to US district judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is debatable. The six judges who heard arguments were dispassionate but pointed in their questions, focusing on the commingling of Internet Explorer's code with the operating system, the adequacy of application programming interface disclosures needed to ensure application interoperability with Windows, and whether the remedy addressed any gains by Microsoft from its anticompetitive conduct.
Aberdeen Group analyst Bill Claybrook said porting Office to Linux would give the open-source operating system a big boost because of the importance of Office in enterprises.
"You would see a huge uptake in Linux use on the desktop," he said. Microsoft would still be owed a licensing fee, but even with that, Claybrook believed IT managers would be more inclined to consider Linux.
The judges spent little time on the government's argument that courts usually give deference to government antitrust settlements, said Bob Lande, an antitrust professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, who took that as a sign that the court is taking a new look at some of the issues in the case. "I think the settlement is in doubt," said Lande.
Tom Reilly, attorney general of Massachusetts, said after the hearing that Microsoft was not held accountable by the settlement with the Bush administration. "They still don't get it," Reilly said of Microsoft. "They don't think they have done anything wrong."
But Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, said the company has acknowledged the court findings about its actions. He also said Microsoft has "been very clear in rebuilding and refashioning our relationship with the rest of the industry".
Patrick Thibodeau writes for Computerworld