In more than a few ways, the trial in a federal courtroom here has mirrored a nationally prominent one in Washington. Both have featured unflattering clips from a video deposition of Microsoft Corp.'s billionaire chairman, Bill Gates. Both have aired scores of internal Microsoft e-mail messages.
But there is one big difference in the two antitrust trials: length. While the government's case against Microsoft in Washington has been dragging since October, the trial of a private suit brought against the company by tiny software maker Bristol Technology Inc. wrapped up with closing arguments today after just six weeks. The jury is scheduled to begin deliberations Wednesday.
Government attorneys are watching the trial here closely. Should Bristol win, some of its evidence could be introduced in Washington if Microsoft loses that case and a hearing follows on what sort of sanction to impose. The software industry is also keenly interested. A win by Bristol could embolden other companies that feel wronged by Microsoft to file similar suits.
Bristol, based in Danbury and employing about 70 people, contends that Microsoft illegally restricted its access to crucial technical details of Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system out of fear that Bristol's software could help promote the use of Unix, a rival operating system.
Bristol, which argued that Microsoft has a "duty to deal" with it, today appealed to the jury to force Microsoft to share the "source code" -- its equivalent of Coca-Cola's secret formula -- for the company's most-advanced operating system, its upcoming Windows 2000 product.
Should the jury side with Bristol, it could seriously complicate Microsoft's plans to make Windows 2000 the far-and-away leader in the market for software for large corporate "server" computer systems. That's because Bristol's software, which allows software written for Windows to run on Unix machines, could inject new life into Unix.
"There's a chance this [Windows] monopoly can be undone before it goes much further," Bristol's lead attorney, Patrick Lynch, told the five-man, four-woman jury in his closing arguments. "Competition could return to the server market, and maybe, there's a chance some of it will return to the desktop market."
Microsoft maintains that it has no obligation under the antitrust laws to share its Windows technology with Bristol. The software giant said the lawsuit simply is a contract dispute -- that Bristol sued after it was told that it would have to pay more to license the source code and that it would not get access to every piece of code. "Source code belongs to the company that developed it," said David B. Tulchin, an attorney representing Microsoft, in his closing arguments.
Bristol is asking the jury for $263 million in damages, roughly 32 times its revenue last year, a figure that a Bristol economist estimated as the sum the company would lose over the next 10 years due to Microsoft's actions. Tulchin asserted that Bristol is suing not for technology, but money. He called Bristol's strategy "the let's-try-to-make-money-in-court business plan."
The government's antitrust case, which is being heard by a judge, will not have closing arguments until September. Lawyers on both sides of that dispute do not expect a ruling until late fall.
The issue of access to Microsoft's technology focuses not just on source code, but on the hooks Microsoft builds into Windows -- called application programming interfaces, or APIs -- which allow programmers to write software, such as word processors and spreadsheets, that runs on Windows. The company's critics have long argued that Microsoft does not fully disclose APIs to rivals, a charge the firm denies.
Requiring Microsoft to commit to fully disclosing APIs and other technological details of Windows is one "remedy" under consideration by government attorneys, and it has been a topic of discussion during preliminary settlement discussions between both sides, according to sources close to the case.
Founded in 1991 by former financial analyst Keith Blackwell, his wife and his brother, Bristol conceived of a product called Wind/U that would allow programs written to run on Windows also to operate on Unix machines. In the early '90s, as Windows was making its first inroads into the server market, Wind/U appealed to Microsoft because it felt more companies would write Windows applications if those applications could also be used on Unix computers.
For Bristol's product to work, though, it would need access to Microsoft's technology, which Microsoft granted in 1994. Shortly thereafter, Bristol's business boomed. Its 1997 revenue topped $8 million. But when Bristol tried to renew its contract with Microsoft in late 1997, the software giant said it was raising the fee for the source code and it would no longer part with all of the code. "It was a classic bait-and-switch," Blackwell said in an interview.
Bristol said Microsoft changed the terms of its contract because Windows had made significant inroads in the server market and it no longer needed to persuade software developers to write for it. Instead, Microsoft wanted to make Unix less attractive by preventing it from being able to run the latest Windows programs.
Microsoft argues that its new contract was not onerous, and it notes that one of Bristol's chief rivals, a firm called Mainsoft, agreed to the terms.
Blackwell doesn't see it that way. The contract Microsoft offered would have given his firm access to only 6.5 percent of new Windows code, he said. "It clearly would have killed our business." Going to court, "is our only chance to stay alive."