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Dot competition

National | Reining in the cybersquatters and taking Windows beyond desktops in the race for digital convergence

Issue: "Supreme arrogance," July 8, 2000

Domain names: Real estate of the world wide web
One of the Internet's most unusual legal fights caught the attention of the Supreme Court: cybersquatting. That's the nabbing of a dot-com or other domain name that is registered as a trademark by someone else. Sometimes it is done out of coincidence; other times not. In any case, it can create legal tussles. In the biggest case yet, a federal court ordered a Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm named Sporty's Farm to give up Sportys.com to Sportsman's Market of Batavia, Ohio, which sells aviation-related products. (What made this case especially interesting is that a company that planned to compete with Sportsman's Market in the aviation business founded Sporty's Farm.) A judge decided the farm was harming Sportsman's Market's trademark and ordered the farm to surrender the Internet name. The Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal, allowing the decision to stand. Another major cybersquatting case was also settled in June; prankster Michael Doughney registered peta.org for a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spoof called People Eating Tasty Animals. The animal-rights group sued. A federal judge ordered him to relinquish the address. Congress enacted the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act last fall to give trademark holders the power to force "squatters" to surrender an Internet name that is identical or very similar to theirs. Cybersquatting is an increasingly serious issue, because the top-level domains, .com, .net and .edu, are controlled by a slow-moving, quasi-governmental bureaucracy that has dragged its feet for years on creating new three letter extensions other than the original trio. Thus, ownership of a domain is like controlling a piece of real estate. The best names can be worth millions. Microsoft's last stand?
Welcome to the me generation. Windows Me, that is. That's the name for the latest update to the consumer Windows operating system, a stopgap update to Windows 98. Unless the antitrust appeals process changes things, this could be one of the last releases from Microsoft that PC users are familiar with. Windows Me, scheduled to ship on Sept. 14, won't necessarily be something to run and spend $109 for an upgrade. Like last year's Second Edition of Windows 98, it is more a collection of tweaks than a complex revision. Those still running Windows 95 will be able to tool around fine for some time to come. The new version does offer some neat tricks, such as a feature called System Restore, which lets users roll back their crashed computer's configuration to a time when it wasn't messing up. But Window Me wasn't supposed to happen. Right now, Microsoft makes two versions of Windows that look a lot alike yet are built differently. Windows 98 and this upcoming Millennium Edition are for home and personal use, while the more robust Windows 2000 (formerly Windows NT) is for businesses. These two lines were supposed to merge into a combined Windows 2000 for both groups and end the confusion. It didn't happen, thanks in part to developmental delays and perhaps some slowdowns caused by the landmark antitrust lawsuit. Still, Windows Me is supposed to be the end of the line for the separate consumer line. Down the road comes a revision that will be the biggest thing since Windows 95's much-ballyhooed introduction. It is expected to be more stable and less likely to crash into the "Blue Screen of Death." But PC users won't see that until 2001. For now, Microsoft is promoting its vision of Microsoft.NET, which simply expands the Windows paradigm beyond the desktop. If this dream comes true, users will be passing information between their laptop, touch screen, cell phone, and personal digital assistant easily and quickly through Bill Gates' software. Windows revisions are just part of this game plan. Microsoft is spending $3 billion this year on research and development alone, trying to stay on top. How all that changes if the court-ordered breakup goes down is the wild card. The Redmond-based giant, like most of the tech industry, is working on the digital convergence. The Internet is becoming ubiquitous, accessible from anywhere, and easy to use. The business machine will seem more and more like a personal secretary. The Microsoft.NET involves integrating software with handwriting recognition, voice commands, and wireless access, all to make use easier and more sophisticated. In this field, much power is out of Microsoft's hands. Lots of competitors are working on their own products. In addition, their acceptance largely depends on the deployment and acceptance of cheap, fast, wireless data connections, which could take years to appear. "It will take a long time but we're committed and patient enough to make it happen," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The wireless future is coming, but will there be a recognizable Microsoft around when it happens?

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