While the world waits for Judge Jackson's verdict in the Microsoft anti-trust trial, there is no sign that this long-running legal tangle with the US Justice Department is having any effect on Microsoft's hairy-chested business antics. Far from being chastened by its brush with the law, the Mike Tyson of the IT industry is still happily nicking the small kids' lunch money.
Last week's incident with streaming media rival Real Networks is a case in point. The two companies are fighting hard to dominate the market for streaming audio and video: Real Networks with its G2 audio standard and RealPlayer, and Microsoft with its own Windows Media. Real Networks was one of the first companies into the market when it was set up in 1993 by ex-Microsoftie, Rob Glaser. It became the dominant standard, until Microsoft entered the market with Media Player.
It turns out that Media Player has a fairly murky pedigree, because its original code demonstrated remarkable similarities to Apple's QuickTime.
This is not surprising when you consider that Microsoft bought it from the same company which wrote QuickTime for Apple. The latter sued Microsoft, but dropping that action was one of the conditions of the notorious Apple/Microsoft deal a couple of years ago.
Agreements and disagreements
Last week, Real Networks agreed to license Windows Media - the standard for Media Player - and make it one of the many standards supported by Real Player. But what should have been a fairly routine announcement very quickly became a real closing time Friday night punch-up.
Microsoft issued a press release claiming that Windows Media was "the industry's universal format for digital media". What proof did it have? The agreement with Real Networks for a start, and a report from a media research group which said that Windows Media is used by more people in the US than any other media player.
Some US press reports followed the Microsoft line on this, and hinted that in adopting Windows Media, Real Networks had, in effect, thrown in the towel.
Real Networks' chief executive, Rob Glaser, hit the roof. First, because Microsoft hadn't told his company they would announce the deal that day - Real Networks had to rush a press release out the following day - and second, because Microsoft dared to claim market dominance. In fact, he took issue with just about everything that Microsoft was trying on.
According to Glaser, Real Networks is the market leader in streaming audio. Real Networks cites the same research company that Microsoft used to back this claim. Windows Media is just one of about nine standards supported by Real Networks, and having adopted the standard, the company's products can support an "additional two per cent of internet audio content".
Wow! A whole two per cent of internet audio content is only supported by Windows Media. Presumably that's all on the Microsoft website. Anyway, Glaser was not happy about the "misinformation", and told Microsoft so. The Seattle Slasher seems to care not a fig.
The action is eerily reminiscent of Microsoft's tactics in the fight with Netscape: build up market share as fast as you can, then tell everyone you are market leader and about to dominate the market even when you are not. Depressingly, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the end.
Real Networks has been very successful and still leads the field in this business. Many analysts believe that the company sets the trends for Microsoft to follow. If Real Networks is driven into the ground soon, it will be taken as a sign that Microsoft is the same aggressive animal it has always been.
Good news for Microsoft's shareholders, but bad news for the competition. And, ultimately, the industry as a whole? Watch this space.
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