Sympathy for Gates Realising that he hasn't written about Bill's fight against Justice for a while, Matthew JC. Powell wades back into murky waters

Sometimes I feel sorry for Bill Gates. Sure, he's got his billions to keep him warm, but he's an easy target for vilification, deserved or otherwise. He doesn't really seem such a bad guy, but whenever he's down, even a little bit, everyone's in for a kick.

Hands up anyone who felt sorry for him when Noel Godin humiliated him with "entartement". Anyone? Thought not. And last week I received an e-mail purporting to prove that a pair of ex-Apple employees working for Intel had somehow managed to tamper with Intel's chip fabrication process such that thousands of Pentium II chips had been shipped with "bill sux" etched into them. There was even a JPEG of a super-enlarged photo of the offending section of one such chip.

It's complete rubbish, of course. Such tampering with an operation as critical and lucrative as Intel's chip fabrication is quite unthinkable. Especially compared with the high likelihood that such a thing could be convincingly faked in Photoshop. I am prepared to stake my reputation (such as it is) on the assertion that no Pentium II chips contain hidden messages about Bill Gates' tendency or otherwise to suck. Definitive proof to the contrary (a Pentium II and a very-high-powered microscope will be required) is welcome.

But lots and lots of people have seen this JPEG and passed it on, most of them not even questioning its authenticity for a moment. Poor Bill.

But even such nastiness in the computing community is unlikely to be keeping him awake at night. He's probably much more concerned about the US Justice Department's imminent action against him. As predicted, Microsoft's lawyers are pulling out every delaying tactic in the book to stop it happening, hold it off, or at least minimise its impact. The department, however, is unrelenting in its pursuit.

Limit questioning

Last week, MS tried to make the Justice League limit its questioning of Bill. (That's the kind of relationship we have - I call him Bill, he points at me and says "yes, you over there".) The lawyers wanted the Justice League to promise not to question Billy for more than eight hours. The court denied the application.

Don't know about you, but to me eight hours seems an awfully long time to be questioning someone. Add in Microsoft's statement that the questioning would not take place in a courtroom, but "at an undisclosed location", and it all gets a little spooky.

I'm picturing a darkened room with a table and two chairs. Bill's in one chair with his tie loosened and his hair ruffled, a desklamp pointed at his face, while a techno-cop sits in the other chair taking notes. A Justice League heavy paces the room asking questions, promising that if the Billster will just break down and give some honest answers he can have a glass of water. There's a mirror on one wall of the room, behind which an enigmatic figure smokes a cigarette.

Cue the X-Files theme if you haven't already.

Then, just to pile on more inexplicable weirdness, the court demanded that MS hand over the source code to Windows 95 and Windows 98, apparently so they can go over it and find out when and under what circumstances MS incorporated Internet Explorer into its OS.

That ought to be fun. I might be just guessing here, but an OS is generally not a short bit of programming. We're looking at probably some millions of lines of code here, or thereabouts. The Justice heavies are presumably going to be skimming through the code, looking for incriminating annotations and remarks.

Things like: "this bit was stolen from Apple! Ha ha!" and "the next fifty thousand lines of code are designed to strangle Netscape" or "this subroutine will break RealPlayer 5 so nyeah!" Subtle clues like that will help the investigators put together a bigger picture of a company that wants to be all things to all people at all cost.

Somehow, I don't think it's likely.

What I think is likely is that the questioning of my pal Bill will be rather boring and unenlightening. Most of what I've read or heard of Bill saying doesn't come across as particularly unkind or awful. He seems a nice enough guy, really. Odd voice, but a nice enough guy. I don't think he believes that he, or his company, has done anything at all wrong or anti-competitive.

Which is not to say they haven't. There is a general attitude that exudes from Microsoft and its people that the interests of that company are over and above the interests of the industry. That customers and users will appreciate an industry dominated by Microsoft's "open" standards - and no one else's. I believe that a good close examination of the corporate culture in Redmond would be a good idea.

But leave poor Bill alone.