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IBM's ‘plot’ to destabilise Microsoft exposed in email

But as it didn't work, it's not much use as evidence

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Pot called the kettle black in court yesterday, as Microsoft attorney Steve Holley produced emails that showed IBM exec John M Thompson plotting with Sun and Netscape against Microsoft. And while the 'everybody does it' line may not ultimately do Microsoft much good, they do show how fuzzy the line between alliance and cartel can be in the computer business. In August of last year Thompson, head of IBM's software operations, wrote to Scott McNealy of Sun and Jim Barksdale of Netscape with a view to neutralising the impact "of some of Microsoft's recent announcements." These "recent announcements" had been of a great deal of interest to the Java camp, as they essentially provided the first early warning of the Microsoft Java strategy that Sun managed to derail earlier this week. For example: "I'd like to clear up a misconception that is put around in the industry, which is that Microsoft, by virtue of our contract with Sun, is obliged to ship those Sun class libraries, that large OS replacement layer that Sun is trying to basically get everyone in the world to ship. Our contract does not require us to ship those libraries. And we have no intention of shipping another bloated operating system and forcing that down the throats of our Windows customers." Paul Maritz, in a 23rd July 1997 presentation. In the same presentation Maritz also described the other irritating (from Sun's point of view) aspect of the Microsoft Java policy. Windows was the main platform for the computer industry, developers would write for it first, so developers would logically write for the Windows "superset" of Java first, and from there deal with the rest of the industry via Sun '100 per cent pure' Java if they wished. Aside from being a worry for Sun, this was a worry for IBM, and for Thompson in particular. He had been in charge of the IBM software development operations that had been effectively blocked via the mechanisms described by John Soyring (Earlier Story). Thompson had tried to get around these on his own with multi-platform development mechanisms within IBM, but had failed. So to intercept Microsoft this time around, a broad alliance was needed. His Barksdale-McNealy email says he has "signed specific IBM resources to work with your team" on Java projects that will throw Microsoft "onto the defensive," and adds: "We must engage our other partners to bundle other Navigator," and Java products. In a later message he volunteers himself to work on Eric Schmidt of Novell, and suggests Larry Ellison be brought on board to help with Apple. At that time Apple had pulled out of the anti-Microsoft camp and allied with Microsoft instead, so Thompson seems to have been trying to win the company back. The extent to which this 'plot' matters is at least debatable. Thompson was clearly unsuccessful in getting his unspecified partners to bundle Navigator, and much of the Java activity in the intervening year has been pretty embryonic, so we can't yet judge the success of whatever he was doing there. If he had succeeded to the extent of locking Microsoft out of markets through deals and pressure, it could certainly have been an antitrust matter. But he didn't, and there's no obvious evidence that any such plan would have stood a chance. Microsoft's production of this stuff in its defence is certainly useful for historians, and makes it clear that everybody would do it if they could. But we knew that anyway, right? Complete Register trial coverage

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