Jury fails to settle ancient suit between Microsoft and Novell

Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in 2002

Above: Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in 2002

Image Credit: World Economic Forum

Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in 2002A seven-year old lawsuit over a fifteen-year-old operating system and a thirty-year-old word processing program has finally ended. With a hung jury.

Novell’s $1.4 billion lawsuit against Microsoft ended in a mistrial December 15 after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, Bloomberg reports.

That could be considered a victory for Microsoft. Novell’s suit, filed in 2004, was based on Microsoft’s alleged lack of support in Windows 95 for WordPerfect, a word-processing program acquired by Novell in 1994.

Those of us who have been in the computer industry long enough remember WordPerfect as a beautifully fast, flexible, text-based word processing program that thrived in the pre-graphical days of DOS. It probably reached its peak with WordPerfect 5.1 in 1989. WordPerfect became a big enough company that it could throw lavish parties at Comdex, then the largest computer industry gathering. I remember attending one party where Ray Charles performed, in a small Las Vegas auditorium, for a group of several hundred WordPerfect execs, customers and press.

By the time Windows started achieving serious momentum in the early 1990s, WordPerfect was looking pretty dated. The company made a serious attempt to transition into the Windows world, but it never stood a chance against Microsoft Word, which was not only made by Microsoft but also increasingly sold as part of an office software suite that included Excel, PowerPoint, and eventually Access, Publisher, Visio, a kitchen sink, a free toaster and an assortment of useful knives that never needed sharpening.

To avoid antitrust allegations, Microsoft claimed that there was a “Chinese wall” between its operating system developers and the programmers who created its office software, so that the latter had no special advantages over outside developers like WordPerfect. But, Novell’s suit alleged, that wasn’t strictly true.

Novell’s suit claimed that Microsoft led Novell to believe that Windows 95 would include a feature to make Novell’s applications work seamlessly with the OS. But then Microsoft dropped support for that feature, harming the market for Novell’s software.

Novell sold WordPerfect for a $1.2 billion loss in 1996, after less than two years of owning the word processor.

Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates testified in the trial last month that WordPerfect was a “bulky, slow, buggy product” and that it didn’t work well with Windows 95.

“We are hoping that in retrial, although it is technically complicated, that we can convince a jury that Novell’s claims are valid,” Novell’s lawyer Jim Lundberg told Bloomberg.

Microsoft’s lawyers were smugly happy and undaunted.

“We remain confident that Novell’s claims don’t have any merit and look forward to the next steps in the process,” said Steven Aeschbacher, Microsoft’s associate general counsel, as reported by the AP.

Photo credit: World Economic Forum/Flickr