Programming Windows: David vs. Goliath (Premium)

When Microsoft pivoted to embrace the Internet, it quickly identified Java and Netscape Navigator as the two key middleware threats to Windows. Its aggressive response to those threats prompted the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the software giant and then charge it with sweeping antitrust charges.

Netscape played an outsized role in the resulting historic trial, overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield, in part because it was younger and smaller than Java maker Sun Microsystems. And because, by the time the trial started in May 1998, Microsoft was already well on its way to destroying Netscape.

Sun was the more powerful adversary. But Microsoft’s strategy for embracing and extending Java, eliminating Sun’s control of the platform while doing so, was consistent with what it did to Netscape and the web. And by the time its antitrust trial was underway, Microsoft had already created a version of Java, and software development tools to support it, which outperformed Sun’s own offerings while negating the platform’s cross-platform benefits. So Sun sued Microsoft separately from the U.S. government, seeking to prevent the software giant from usurping its platform. But Java figured prominently in Microsoft’s antitrust case as well.

Microsoft argued in court that it had done nothing wrong. It noted that it was the “largest distributor” of Java because it built the technology into its successful Windows and Windows NT products. And it wasn’t “polluting” Java, as Sun had complained to the DOJ, but was rather making the platform run “faster and better” than with Sun’s own version. Yes, the firm’s lawyers admitted, Microsoft did create developer tools that allowed programmers to write Java applications that could directly access Windows features. But “Microsoft has not required anyone to take advantage of that option,” it claimed.

On the face of things, these claims were true. Microsoft did create a Java Virtual Machine (JVM)---the software environment in which Java applications run---that ran “faster and better” than Sun’s original version, and it even ported this JVM to the Mac. And Microsoft did create developer tools, part of a product called Visual J++, that allowed developers to write both standard Java applications and full-featured Windows applications. It seemed that Microsoft had simply improved Java, and that Sun should be thankful, not litigious.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, there was a lot of evidence to the contrary, most of which came in the form of its own internal emails.

Microsoft epic antitrust trial is still remembered today for several dramatic moments in which clips of CEO Bill Gates’ videotaped deposition were played ahead of the presentation of email evidence that completely refuted what Gates claimed. Gates was sullen and surly throughout the deposition. And he frequently clashed with the off-camera questioner over the most basic of terms ...

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