At Large: Spin doctors attack Gates' Axis

At Large: Spin doctors attack Gates' Axis

Giving in to his baser impulses, Matthew JC. Powell contradicts his best intentions once more . . .

Yes, I know I told you I wasn't going to write about the Microsoft trial. I promised myself, too, and I hate to break promises to myself. I get all sullen and won't speak to me for ages afterwards.

But I didn't expect the trial to be nearly as funny as it has been in its first couple of weeks. I thought there would be days and days of boring opening arguments designed to reduce interest in the case to the point where it could proceed in the privacy of public disenchantment. I expected a whole heap of technical evidence so dull it would make OJ's DNA seem compelling. I knew I would read a web of accusations and counter- accusations so confusing and contradictory that no one could hope to decipher or reconcile them.

So far only the last of these predictions has come true. The opening statements were over so quickly they were virtually unreported - obviously both sides are raring for a fight and didn't want to disappoint those of us with ringside seats. There hasn't been much in the way of technical argument either, but that's most likely to feature when the lawyers dig into claims made by Real Networks about Real Player, and by Sun about Java. Then you can expect the sparks to, um, spark.

The web of accusations and counter-accusations has been amazing and bizarre, and at the time of this writing only Netscape's CEO Jim Barksdale has taken the stand. I shudder to think what will happen when more colourful personalities start answering questions.

Not company policy

I thought it was kind of funny when Barksdale said that Marc Andreesen's belief that Navigator should be free was "not the policy of the company". Andreesen was, after all, the founder of the company, and the program was free for some years while Andreesen ran the place. Sounds like more than an idle opinion to me.

But then the real weirdness started. After a bunch of testimony relating to notes made at a meeting between Netscape and Microsoft executives, Microsoft's lawyers claimed they'd been set up, that the meeting had been entirely a ruse to gather incriminating evidence against the company to submit to the Department of Justice. My advice to Microsoft: in meetings with competing companies' executives, don't say anything that would incriminate you. This makes it very hard to set you up.

My take on the whole thing is that it's possibly the worst setup I've ever heard of. The crux of the evidence gathered from Netscape's "sting" is a note taken by Marc Andreesen at said meeting, in which someone is reported to have suggested that the two companies should divvy up the browser market. In this division, MS would have "the Windows stuff" and NS would be left to everything else. Lousy deal for a start, but the thing is, Andreesen didn't attribute the remark to anyone. For all we know, he made it up himself while doodling pictures of Bugs Bunny and playing tick-tack-toe.

Now, if I were going to set up Microsoft, my notes would say something like: "after the tea and biscuits had been served, Gates ran into the room swinging a battleaxe and yelling 'I'll crush you all beneath my feet like insignificant bugs and rule the world with an iron grip! Ha ha haaaaa!' which I took to imply anticompetitive intentions on the part of his company." None of this unattributed, vague nonsense for me.

Then there was the fantasy game played by Barksdale and AOL chief Steve Case, Gates' two main rivals in the browser wars. Apparently the two of them liked to pretend that Gates was a certain German dictator of the WWII era, and pictured themselves as Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, the unlikely Allies opposing him. Barksdale was Stalin in this game, a fact which has made me wonder whether I ought to remove Navigator from my computer lest it lead some spontaneous purge of my valuable data. Apparently, Barksdale wanted to be Winston Churchill, but Case wouldn't let him.

Tragically, the lawyers did not pursue the obvious question of whether they played "paper, scissors, rock" or "odds and evens" to settle the dispute. In fact, was the dispute settled, or did Barksdale pack up his toys and go home to tell his mother? Enquiring minds want to know.

My prediction at this stage: Microsoft will win the trial and will take its victory as an endorsement of its behaviour and business practices to this point. Why? Because justice in the United States is typified by Mike Tyson regaining his licence to beat people's brains in, and at least Bill Gates hasn't bitten anybody yet.

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