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Windows Warning Resurfaces in Suit

August 28, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An on-screen warning of a ``nonfatal error″ that appeared when customers tried to use an early version of Windows with a rival’s software is taking on new significance in light of the government’s pending antitrust case against Microsoft.

The warning appeared in late 1991 in prerelease copies of Windows 3.1 when customers tried to load the software with an operating system known as DR-DOS, which competed directly with Microsoft’s MS-DOS.

Microsoft’s critics have long contended the company deliberately designed the warning to raise fear among consumers that DR-DOS was somehow incompatible with Windows and encourage them to buy Microsoft’s own operating system.

It is unclear whether the government plans to resurrect the episode during next month’s antitrust trial with Microsoft, when the Justice Department and 20 states will try to prove that the company engaged in a pattern of illegal behavior to stifle competition and hurt consumers.

As part of its current lawsuit, the government began questioning Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates Thursday at the company’s headquarters near Seattle. The deposition was expected to last through late today.

Microsoft previously turned over to the Justice Department internal e-mail messages about the DR-DOS warning as part of the cache of documents subpoenaed by the government in its similar 1995 case against Microsoft, which was settled out of court.

The warning message is expected to be a key piece of evidence in a private antitrust lawsuit filed by Utah-based Caldera Inc., which bought the rights to DR-DOS in July 1996 from Novell Inc. and immediately sued Microsoft.

Caldera is suing Microsoft in federal court in Salt Lake City for designing early Windows software that allegedly was deliberately incompatible with DR-DOS. Caldera also claims Microsoft intentionally misled customers to believe that using Windows 95 replaced the need for computer users also to buy DR-DOS or MS-DOS.

``Microsoft was using its monopoly power to scare partners away from their competitors,″ said Bryan Sparks, Caldera’s chairman. ``There wasn’t a real incompatibility, but it did have a very serious effect.″

A book to be published next week, ``The Microsoft File,″ quotes e-mail from Microsoft executive David Cole as saying: ``It’s pretty clear we need to make sure Windows 3.1 only runs on MS-DOS.″ The Wall Street Journal separately cited excerpts from the e-mail in an article Thursday.

Cole, head of Windows development, also wrote that if Windows detected rival DR-DOS as the installed operating system, rather than Microsoft’s, it ``should surely crash at some point shortly later.″

Brad Silverberg, then a Microsoft senior vice president, wrote back to Cole: ``What the guy is supposed to do is feel uncomfortable and when he has bugs, suspect the problem is DR-DOS and then go out to buy MS-DOS.″

The book also cites another e-mail, sent by then-Microsoft vice president James Allchin, arguing that Microsoft shouldn’t allow DR-DOS to make gains in the market.

The warning message about DR-DOS never appeared in shipping versions of Windows 3.1, only in the several thousand copies sent to ``beta testers″ in late 1991. And the message, though serious in tone, didn’t affect how Windows worked with DR-DOS.

Microsoft said its executives’ e-mail was ``like informal conversations, where ideas are discussed and some are shot down,″ adding that Cole’s suggestion to crash DR-DOS was ``never the company’s policy and never implemented.″

``Microsoft has never deliberately crashed anyone else’s product,″ spokesman Jim Cullinan said. ``Our focus was not to disable anything. It was to reduce product support costs by letting consumers know that we have not tested this.″

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