A federal judge's intemperate remarks about Microsoft and owner Bill Gates turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to them.
Gates will not only remain the world's richest man -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but his company will maintain its monopoly -- and very likely strengthen it.
That will happen not because Gates or Microsoft has become any less predatory or any less committed to absolute domination of the way we all use our personal computers. It will happen because the first judge in the case couldn't keep his mouth shut outside the courtroom and because Microsoft and Gates not only found themselves facing a kinder, gentler judge, but a much kinder and gentler Justice Department.
The first judge in the case, Thomas Penfield Jackson, wrote an excruciatingly detailed opinion in which he found Microsoft had used a variety of means and pressures to dissuade PC manufacturers from selling their machines with rival software and, when that failed, made Microsoft software incompatible with its competition.
Lose lips: In court, Jackson found that the only way to undo this monopoly was the break up the company. Out of court, Jackson found Gates so personally irritating and parts of his testimony during the trial so incredible that he let his pique show. In an interview, he compared Gates to Napoleon and Microsoft to a drug-dealing street gang.
The remarks were sufficiently biased to get Jackson thrown off the case. An appeals court agreed with Jackson's finding that Microsoft was, indeed, an illegal monopoly, but suggested that breaking the company up went too far. The Bush administration, which inherited the suit, immediately took any suggestion of a break-up off the table, which telegraphed where negotiations were headed.
Half a loaf: The agreement requires the company to provide technical details to help rivals make products compatible with its monopoly operating system, but Microsoft critics and competitors are already pointing out loopholes big enough to drag an old Univac through.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has introduced its newest version of an operating system, which critics say has some of the same exclusionary features as the old, and the company is entering the huge computer game market, selling its XBox systems at a loss now in anticipation of making a killing on software in the future.
Calling Gates "Napoleon" was wrong. Napoleon didn't think big enough.