The Justice Department says of its latest action against Microsoft, "We are not taking sides in a browser war."

But that is the effect, if not the intention, of the government's attempt to make Microsoft stop including its Internet Explorer Web browser with Windows 95.

Indeed, the government's explanation of its action suggests that either its antitrust lawyers don't know what they're doing or they're knowingly trying to help Microsoft's rival, Netscape.

Because Microsoft requires computer makers who license Windows 95 for inclusion with new systems to accept Internet Explorer with it, the government says the company is "taking advantage of its monopoly power" as the vendor of Windows 95 to engage in what it calls "product forcing." This, says the Justice Department, violates the consent decree Microsoft entered into with the government in 1995.

That decree, says Justice, requires Microsoft not to enter into license agreements which compel customers to accept other Microsoft products as a condition of getting Windows 95. Internet Explorer, says the government, is just such an "other product."

Says Joel Klein, head of the antitrust division at Justice, "Everyone knows you have an operating system, you have a browser," and they're obviously separate.

Oh? What about all those other stand-alone programs that are included with Windows 95? There are two word processors, a modem communications program, a fax program, an e-mail program, several games, a calculator and a paint program, just to name some.

Indeed, from the earliest days of MS-DOS, the original Microsoft operating system from which Windows evolved, the product has always been a combination of basic software needed to make a PC functional and a set of stand-alone programs intended to enhance that functionality.

From the beginning, other software houses have found lucrative niche markets by developing utility programs that did a better job than those included with MS-DOS, or did things MS-DOS did not do at all. With each new version of MS-DOS and Windows, Microsoft built in added features, some of which wiped out the market for third-party programs.

Those other software houses, naturally, did not like that and did not like Microsoft. Some have been screaming to the government for years.

Early versions of Windows were loaded with programs that had previously been provided only by outside vendors. There was, for instance, a word processor, Windows Write, a communications program, Terminal, as well as a suite of games, including a wildly popular version of Klondike Solitaire.

Microsoft has continued to upgrade and add to these programs with each new version of Windows. The popularity of fax modems and the explosion in the use of electronic mail led Microsoft to include software to handle each in Windows 95. Microsoft contends that faxes and e-mail have become such widespread uses of the personal computer that an operating system that does not provide software for them is incomplete.

Microsoft was slow to catch on to the importance of the Internet and the World Wide Web. By the time it woke up, Netscape's Navigator browser had grabbed an overwhelming market share, which it still retains.

Microsoft responded with Internet Explorer, now in its fourth edition, and began giving it away and including it free of charge with newly installed copies of Windows 95. When you start Windows, there is an Internet icon on the desktop screen, which, when activated, leads the user through the setup of Internet Explorer.

But the inclusion of Internet Explorer does not prevent the inclusion or later installation of Netscape Navigator or any other browser. So why does Internet Explorer result in an antitrust action, while the other software that Microsoft has increasingly included with Windows bring not a peep from the government?

The answer seems to be that Internet Explorer is such a powerful Web browser that it threatens Microsoft's competition in a way that those other programs do not.

In other words, it's fine for Microsoft to include stand-alone programs with Windows as long as they aren't really good. Does anyone think the government would be after Microsoft if Internet Explorer were a crummy little browser that was no match for Netscape's Navigator?

The reason Microsoft has made Internet Explorer so strong is that it thinks the Internet is now so integral to personal computing that Web browsers threaten to become, in effect, operating systems unto themselves.

Microsoft says it has the right to define what its operating software should include. That attitude enrages the company's critics who consider it typically arrogant.

Perhaps it is, but the question is, who would you rather have making such decisions, Microsoft or the U.S. government?

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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