Still locked in behind double-glazed Windows?

So maybe the "one-armed man" did it after all and what should have been the front-page news of Microsoft's historic antitrust...

So maybe the "one-armed man" did it after all and what should have been the front-page news of Microsoft's historic antitrust settlement with the US Department of Justice was muted by the harsher sounds of carpet-bombing elsewhere.

I suggested to an early morning New York radio audience that the final, five-year consent decree; the result of several years of courtroom argument and several tens of million dollars of legal fees, says far more about political influence and the power of money than the strength of antitrust legislation and the protection of consumer rights.

Ironically, the agreement will, in practice, bar Microsoft from business practices it has already abandoned. These include restrictive contracts and coercive tactics, and PC suppliers will no longer be expected to exclusively promote Microsoft software for fear of retaliatory sanctions.

"This settlement," said US attorney general John Ashcroft, "is the right result for consumers and businesses, the right result for government, and the right result for the economy." He added that "the new restrictions would help independent software makers be competitive with Microsoft."

In principle, it looks as if the courts have surrendered to a quick compromise in the interests of a struggling US economy and, in practice, the impact on IT costs will be the true measure of its success.

Far too many questions are left unanswered by this case. Most certainly, Microsoft has learned a hard lesson from the experience and as predicted, its strategy has become far more opaque to the courts.

I once described .net as the "smile on the face of Microsoft's Cheshire Cat" and by distributing its ambitions under the .net umbrella, Microsoft has made it increasingly difficult for the anti-trust lawyers to clearly define any new challenge. It remains to be seen whether what has happened in Washington will weaken the case being built against Microsoft by the European Commission.

To be honest, arguing over whether Microsoft is the good guy or the bad guy has become irrelevant and even tedious for most of us. What is more important are the consequences. Will we really see more open competition, or will we become an increasingly "double-glazed" society, locked-in behind our Windows?

The agreement should, in theory, stimulate a more competitive landscape in an industry which once used to thrive on innovation and imagination. However, the politicians and the legislators may be guilty of astonishing naivety in expecting that simply by altering the conditions of business they will create a new climate of competition.

Microsoft's cash mountain dwarfs its rivals by an order of magnitude and, while the Open Source movement shows real success in some areas, the company can still shrug this off as an inconvenience if, in future, it continues to dominate the relationship between Internet customers and their PCs as it has in the past.

In the final analysis though, the settlement is best summed-up by the French proverb, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (The more it changes, the more it stays the same).

Simon Moores is chairman of the Research Group

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