Microsoft's quarrel with the government this week became so overheated in its rhetoric and Byzantine in its technological discourse that you'd need a bulldozer to cut through the BS -- and the confusing press coverage.
The zenith of the dispute's craziness came when Microsoft told a federal judge (and its computer-manufacturer customers) that removing the company's Internet Explorer Web browser from its Windows 95 operating system would cause computers to stop functioning.
Huh? Like a good number of Windows 95 users out there, I'd uninstalled (and reinstalled) Internet Explorer many times. In fact, the reason I'd wanted to remove it was that the browser seemed to crash my otherwise reliable Windows 95 computer (ironically, when I pointed it to Microsoft's own Web site). Removing IE actually prevented crashes.
The trouble is that Microsoft is defining "remove" in a particularly obtuse way. When most of us remove a program, we find the icon that represents it and the main program file the icon points to and we delete them. Or we go to Microsoft's helpful Add/Remove Programs control panel and tell Windows 95 to do the deed for us (this is the route Microsoft itself advises on its own Web page of instructions for "How to Remove and Reinstall IE 3.0 for Windows 95"). Either approach works fine.
But as Windows has grown more baroque, adding a program increasingly involves scattering small files (particularly "DLLs" or "dynamic link libraries") deep in the recesses of your system -- in the Windows System folder, where casual users fear to tread the gibberish-laden file directories. If you removed IE from your system and also rooted out every last one of these dozens of files (there's a daunting list on Microsoft's Web site), then you might risk the crashes Microsoft predicts. You'd have to be pretty determined, though.
Microsoft also told the world that if you removed IE from Windows 95 a long list of other products would stop working because these programs depend on some key DLL files that are installed when you install IE. Yet typically the installer programs for these other products will check to make sure those files are already present on the user's computers -- and add them if they're not.
There's one set of people on the planet uniquely qualified to sort out which files are essential to system function and which are peculiar to the browser: Microsoft's engineers. Instead, Microsoft refused to cooperate with the court in untangling these issues -- and actually further muddied the waters.
The company claimed that, if it was to comply with the judge's order to "unbundle" the browser from Windows, it could only offer its customers two choices: A) an up-to-date version of Windows 95 in which IE and all its associated files had been crudely ripped out; or B) the original, 2-year-old version of Windows 95. The former wouldn't work, and the latter suffers the stigma of being behind the times.
Microsoft, in other words, behaved like a surly kid who, resenting some parental order, throws a tantrum by obeying too well: "Throw out my comic books? I'll show you!" -- and Dad finds the encyclopedia in the trash can, too.
There are fine points to this dispute that have been ignored in the rush to confrontation and often obscured in the coverage. For instance, the supposedly outdated original Windows 95 is hardly an old wreck, and millions of customers are still happily using it. So Microsoft's proposal to make the old version available isn't quite as offensive as observers have suggested.
Microsoft has never actually marketed an upgrade to Windows 95; it produced something known as the "OEM Service Release 2," which incorporated two key features: IE 3.0 (and associated files) and a new 32-bit file system that allowed newer computers to take full advantage of bigger hard drives. You can't buy "OSR 2"; Microsoft simply started shipping the newer version to computer manufacturers ("Original Equipment Manufacturers" or OEMs) and let individual users who wished to upgrade their own Windows systems download the necessary files from its Web site.
Microsoft's download page provides this helpful explanation: "Because most of the new functionality in OSR 2 is applicable only to new hardware devices, OSR 2 is only available on new PCs. However, here are the OSR 2 components available for download from the Internet today!" A list follows; the second item on it is Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0.
In other words, Microsoft can separate IE from the OSR 2 version of Windows 95 easily enough when it wants to. It's only when a judge asks the company to perform the task that it become a hazard to system stability.
Stunts like this are precisely what give Microsoft its reputation for arrogance. In trying to make sure I understood the technical aspects of this story, I consulted Fred Davis, author of "The Windows 95 Bible." Once we'd talked about the ins and outs of browser removal, he launched into a spirited rant about the case against Microsoft, which he argues is an instance of "mob mentality": "This is the great American tradition of bashing the big guys who are winning. It's like 'Lord of the Flies' -- Kill the pig! Why? Because he's fat and wears glasses?"
Davis might be right that there's an irrational element in the anti-Microsoft backlash. But Microsoft doesn't help its case when it gives the government a different story than it gives its own customers -- and then acts as if everyone else is too dumb or ignorant to understand the technological complexities that govern its behavior.
The truth is, technical issues are not the crux of this fight at all, and Microsoft's frantic effort to turn our attention that way is a dodge. No one involved -- Microsoft, the Justice Department, Netscape -- cares much about those hidden files in the Windows system folder, which 99.9 percent of users will never see. What's at issue is whose browser icon sits on the desktop, Netscape's or Microsoft's. And that is less a matter of software code and operating-system integration than of old-fashioned marketing and product placement. Whether you're a Microsoft or a Netscape fan, keep that in mind.
"If you really care about the Internet and want to see lots of sites the way they were designed," Davis maintains, "you need both of those suckers anyway."