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How the trial schedule is influencing MS' roadmaps

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Analysis It's tricky to work out Microsoft's product strategy for dealing with possible judicial break up, particularly as the company claims it doesn't have one. But a close study of Bill Gates' speeches and TV appearance in Australia last week, supplemented by some other sources and some guess work gives us some clues. It is clear enough that Microsoft wants a strategy that will make break-up as difficult as possible, but nevertheless, it has a plan, of sorts.

There are probably three stages involved, depending on how much time the company is left unfettered, and at the same time Microsoft needs to anticipate the possibility that it could still win. In that event, it's important that it avoids going too far down the wrong road in the meantime. It's reasonable to suppose that Gates' main task at the moment is to guide this effort, and to leave a small public trail that justifies the moves, should this be needed in the future.

Such a strategy would account for the three months of near-deafening silence about .NET: Microsoft does not want to reveal too much about its plans, in order to maintain flexibility. However, as with any big project, it is inevitable that significant details will leak out as to what Microsoft is doing, so Gates has been planting the clues that Microsoft has decided to release. It is also important that Microsoft R&D doesn't work too aimlessly, pending the outcome of the appeal. The departure of many of the old-guard execs may in fact be welcome, as the newly-promoted ones are likely to be younger, harder-driving slave masters put there to get the code cranked out quickly, as required by circumstances.

The Supreme schedule

Microsoft's plan would seem to hinge on three major product releases: MSN, later this year; Whistler - which is also a component of .NET Version One - in mid-to-late 2001, while .NET Version Two would be at a date to be determined, depending on how the appeal was going, but quite possibly 2003 or even later. For once, Microsoft is probably unlikely to say much about what would go into each product release, because it's more important to include what is more or less ready at the time. The exact timing would very much depend on when the lawyers expect a particular move to occur.

Gates confirmed in his Australian speeches that Microsoft will have a new user interface for MSN in the US later this year, called MSN Explorer, and that this is expected to incorporate a microphone. It's a fair enough guess that the tying of IE to Windows takes more mindshare at Microsoft than tying Office to Windows, despite this being economically more important. The recent (highly-disputed) claim that MSN is the number one Internet site would have two major advantages: at last, MSN could perhaps start on the long road to profitability; and tying it to IE, as only Microsoft knows how, would probably make it more difficult for other browsers to be substituted, except by the more savvy users. This is about all that Microsoft could achieve by the end of this year, to cope with the worst-case scenario of the Supreme Court summarily ruling against it.

If the Supremes decide to hear the case and Microsoft loses, it is likely to take about a year, so Microsoft needs a one-year plan that could be stretched to nearer two years if it finds it has that much latitude. The best it is likely to be able to achieve in that time is the successful launch of Whistler, which would make any order to separate IE from Windows 9x moot, and probably some moves related to ensuring that updates to Windows and Office were only downloadable to registered PCs - a move that would not delight resellers.

As for other goodies on Gates' wish list that could be included in .NET Version One, speech recognition is near the top, as Microsoft's Doug Henrich, general manager of the speech products group, confirmed recently, but he put the date at 2002 and said that its introduction would be slow and cautious. Significantly, SAPI - Microsoft's speech API - only runs under Windows, and Microsoft's priority here is now to get SAPI version 5.0 to developers as quickly as possible.

... or the appeals court

If the case is sent to the Court of Appeals, two years is likely to be the minimum period Microsoft would have to play with, since whatever the outcome, an appeal to the Supremes by the losers is virtually inevitable. It is also possible that the Court of Appeals would return the case to the District Court, for further review as a result of technological developments. Gates would therefore probably be able to get most of his immediate wish list incorporated in .NET Version Two, including speech recognition, handwriting recognition, the tablet PC, and interactive TV.

Should Microsoft win at any stage, the strategy would ensure that the company was in an unassailable position to dictate terms to the industry for many years to come - always providing that no unexpected technology leap or anti-Microsoft sentiment knocks the company off its Messianic path. ®

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