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Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Mute about Microsoft

Companies associated with the software giant either refused to elaborate beyond short statements or remained silent altogether about the proposed antitrust settlement

AP , SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA

Oracle Corp chief executive Larry Ellison gestures during a news conference at Oracle headquarters in Redwood City, California, earlier this year. Ellison was one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed Microsoft Corp antitrust settlement.

PHOTO: AP

Not many high-tech companies talk openly about the proposed Microsoft antitrust settlement. Even fewer criticize the deal in public, despite private misgivings.

They still, after all, must work with the world's largest software maker, which controls the operating systems of more than 90 percent of desktop computers and can play a big role in the fate of their businesses.

The exceptions are the usual suspects -- mainly those companies that possess enough clout, money and muscle to risk a run-in with the software giant.

The most outspoken critics include database powerhouse Oracle Corp and Unix server king Sun Microsystems Inc. Both dominate their core markets despite Microsoft's efforts.

Larry Ellison, Oracle's billionaire chief executive, told a crowd at the Comdex computer show in Las Vegas this week that the settlement is "a complete victory for Microsoft, a complete defeat for the government. I give Microsoft credit for keeping a straight face."

Sun's chief, Scott McNealy, also expressed outrage that the Department of Justice -- after winning the case -- seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The deal is riddled with pro-Microsoft loopholes and indicates government unwillingness to police antitrust crimes, critics say.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about the deal, but co-founder Bill Gates has said the company will accept its strictures.

Most companies that must work with or compete against the software giant either refused to elaborate beyond short written statements, or remained silent altogether.

Real Networks, which makes streaming media software, declined to comment beyond a short statement, which called the settlement a reward not a remedy. Ditto for AOL-Time Warner, Palm and Novell. Others, including software-maker Adobe Inc, computer-maker Apple Computer Inc and chipmaker Intel Corp refused to make any statements at all.

Major PC manufacturers also were silent.

"They're all dependent," McNealy said in an interview. "It's kind of like the mob -- you can't speak out."

Only a handful of other high-tech companies would answer discuss specific reasons for their opposition to the settlement.

Opera Software ASA had little to lose.

The Norway-based company long ago gave up on persuading PC makers to install its critically acclaimed Web browser on new PCs. Microsoft's exclusive deals had already shut it out of the market.

Opera might benefit from the settlement under some provisions that allow computer makers to install non-Microsoft "middleware" such as Web browsers. But only the links to Microsoft software could be removed, not the programs themselves. That means Microsoft could set itself up as the default system despite any agreements with PC and software makers.

"We're not being extremely hopeful that this is going to open up a lot of doors in the PC marketplace," said Jon von Tetzchner, Opera's chief executive.

At any rate, the same PC makers that won't comment on the settlement probably aren't interested in raising the ire of Microsoft, even if retribution is barred in the settlement.

"There are loopholes," von Tetzchner said. "And there's the practice of life. All of those companies will think twice before upsetting Microsoft."

The entire debate over what Microsoft can do and cannot do appears to be rendered moot: Under the settlement, Microsoft can define what comprises the Windows operating system at "its sole discretion."

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