Texas AG probes Microsoft

The controversial decision at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) to move to an all-Windows environment may fuel the antitrust investigation of Microsoft Corp. now under way by the Office of the Attorney General of Texas.

The Texas AG's office requested documents from JSC as part of its larger antitrust investigation of Microsoft which it began last month. State officials asked NASA's Office of the Inspector General for a November report that investigated the center's policy to replace its Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh workstations with PCs that run Microsoft's Windows 95.

Mark Tobey antitrust chief in the Texas AG's office last week declined to comment. "I'm not comfortable commenting on an ongoing investigation " Tobey said. "If anybody has relevant information we would be interested in knowing about it [or] information about how Microsoft Corp. conducts its business here in the state of Texas."

However a JSC employee interviewed by the Texas AG's office said the officials were interested in JSC's 1995 participation in an early "rollout" program for Windows 95. According to the IG's report JSC received 1 000 free Windows 95 licenses for its participation in the early rollout.

Lighting a Fire

After the early rollout project JSC chief information officer Jack Garman established a policy that outlined a single Windows 95 desktop standard. That policy ignited a firestorm from JSC employees who argued that the policy did not consider cost/benefit studies.

The IG's report concluded that Garman did not follow policy when he issued the order to move to the Windows standard. It also charged that the standard was not cost-effective and did not take needs into account.

A JSC spokeswoman said Garman was not aware of a request by the Texas AG's office for the IG's report.

Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray confirmed that the company received a letter from the Texas AG's office earlier this month requesting information.

"We have absolutely no indication that the attorney general's inquiry has any interest whatsoever in the Johnson Space Center's decision to standardize on the Windows platform " Murray said. "We're confident that once they've reviewed all the facts they will agree competition is alive and well in the software industry."

Washington antitrust lawyer Keith Shugarman said it is very unusual for federal agencies to be involved in any antitrust investigations except for contract bid-rigging schemes which are quite frequent.

The Justice Department however recently investigated some cases to determine whether bidding companies have attempted to unduly influence federal procurement officials he said.

"Microsoft giving them 1 000 free licenses is in the same genre and would raise similar concerns " Shugarman said. "Giving a product away doesn't immediately sound like an antitrust violation.... The question is Is there some long-run cost or price advantage because of that?"

Garman said in January that he would comply with the written policy. However he said he still has plans to migrate to the Windows standard.

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