Americans who catch a glimpse of Bill Gates testifying in a courtroom on their nightly newscast today or tomorrow will likely have two thoughts: “Oh, it’s the rich chairman of Microsoft,” followed by “Oh, he’s talking about that antitrust thingamabob”– I thought that was over.”

It should be over — and Gates will be pleading for it to be so. His message: Hasn’t Microsoft done enough to settle this protracted legal fight?

Last fall, the software maker reached a settlement with the federal government and nine states in the lawsuit under which they had charged the company with competing unfairly. Without either side actually winning the court battle, the governments agreed to a hefty list of concessions that the company would make.

Months later, Microsoft is still in court. That’s because nine states, including California and Florida, find the settlement inadequate. Put more bluntly, the nine state attorneys general are spending tens of thousands of their taxpayers’ dollars to prolong a years-old, complicated battle that a majority of their colleagues have judged to be over.

Yet we’d wager that consumers in the nine states  — California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Utah, and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia — would find the settlement satisfying — that is, if they ever did feel harmed by Microsoft’s practices in the first place. Among its terms are a requirement that for five years, Microsoft:

  • refrains from restricting computer manufacturers ability to install and promote non-Microsoft operating-system products
  • discloses the technical information needed for software on a network server to interoperate with Windows 
  • accepts internal and independent watchdogs of its compliance with the settlement

The federal government and the states that settled see these remedies as great protection for consumers. They had argued in their lawsuits that consumers were denied the benefits of competitors’ products because Microsoft aggressively locked those competitors out. Now the software giant has to give its adversaries a leg up, and if those companies produce good stuff, consumers will have access to it. Microsoft, for its part, would argue it was just playing hardball in an industry where hardball is played very well, and that competing products just aren’t as popular as its own. There’s truth in that defense, even if it sounds harsh. But whatever the case, the two sides ended their fight.

Which leaves the minority of nine combative states jumping up and down all by themselves — for reasons that most consumers would find incomprehensible.

Isolation from the interests of consumers isn’t the only problem the knot of holdouts face. They’re also spending taxpayers’ money. They’re hard pressed to make Microsoft look like a demon when there’s Enron to contend with. And in a season of economic hardship when Microsoft and other software companies are struggling to meet their forecasts, the holdouts are also distracting the company from its primary responsibility: To make software that helps businesses and households, and to keep its American workers employed.

And let’s just spend a moment on the upside of Microsoft’s products. As working Moms we feel the need to at least briefly applaud the technological leadership shown by the company that has helped launch the explosion of women-owned businesses, many of which are home-based. And what working Mom among us hasn’t blessed the ability to race home to spend time with the kids, knowing we can get on the computer at 9 pm to finish our “day jobs?” (For the record, we’d also like to thank cell phone manufacturers and the heroes who keep us supplied with Diet Coke.)

From the start of the Microsoft legal battle, there was something unpleasant about a band of government lawyers chasing a company in the name of consumer interests that few consumers could actually understand. But Microsoft was perceived to be a behemoth that needed some cutting down to size, and people had frustration with their office PCs that they channeled into the legal issue.

That’s now old news and big, rich Bill Gates and his company are volunteering to eat crow. If that’s good enough for the feds and nine states, it should be good enough for all of us.

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer is president of the Independent Women’s Forum and Melana Zyla Vickers is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.