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Nov 10, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 09 • By BRIT HUME
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When Windows 95 first came out, that little Internet icon was nowhere to be found. The only path the new software offered to the Internet was through the Microsoft Network, the online service Microsoft had started in competition with America Online, Compuserve, and other such services. Microsoft thought these services were the hot trend in computer communication. The Internet, it seemed, was just one more place you could go through your online service. By the time Microsoft realized that the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, were the dog and the online services only the tail, Netscape had run away with the market for browser software.

For Microsoft, that was not the worst of it. A team of programmers at Sun Microsystems had developed a new programming language called Java that does something no other language can do -- create Internet-based programs that will run on any personal computer, be it a Windows-based PC, an Apple Macintosh, or a Sun workstation running the UNIX operating system. At first, Java was used mostly to add slick features to World Wide Web pages, such as icons that move and sports scoreboards that change before your eyes. But Java has proved capable of much more. Its applications, known as "applets," can do virtually any task, from word processing to spreadsheet accounting. They have vastly increased the potential of the Internet and have caused some industry analysts to foresee the day when you won't need to keep any programs stored on your computer except your Web browser. The browser will hold the key to all the software available via the Internet. The consequences for Microsoft and its operating software are obvious: The company's domination of the personal computer desktop is seriously threatened.

To say that Microsoft has been in a hurry to add Web-browsing capability to Windows 95 is a huge understatement. It is no longer a matter of competing for a share of the browser-application market. The distinction between browsers and operating systems has been blurred to the point where it's not clear where one ends and the other begins. After all, there is now an entire class of software that literally cannot be run without a browser that can handle Java. The Justice Department's claim that Microsoft is using its dominance in operating systems to stuff a separate Microsoft program down the throats of computer vendors and users misses the point. Microsoft is trying desperately to keep its operating system from becoming irrelevant.

Does that mean Microsoft is a nice company seeking only to compete fairly? Hardly. Look at the suit filed by Sun Microsystems against Microsoft in federal court in San Jose on October 14. Microsoft has been forced to acquire license to use Java in Internet Explorer, but Sun claims in its suit that Microsoft is using an altered version of Java in the new edition of its browser. The purpose, Sun alleges, is to force Java programmers to write programs that will run properly only on computers using Windows 95, thereby defeating one of Java's main virtues, its universality, and helping protect the dominant position of Windows 95. Microsoft does not deny it has made the changes, but claims it has a right to make them. Unlike the action brought by Justice, this looks like a case worth watching.

Contributing editor Brit Hume of Fox News also writes a syndicated column about personal computers.