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Microsoft executive denies threat to 'cut off air supply'

WASHINGTON -- The first Microsoft executive to testify in the company's antitrust case denied uttering an often-quoted phrase about his company's aggression toward a software rival, that he once promised to "cut off Netscape's air supply."

Paul Maritz, the senior Microsoft executive alleged to have made that threat, takes the witness stand Monday to defend his company. Throughout the 11 weeks of trial, Maritz's name appears on nearly every controversial e-mail used as evidence by the government, either as author or recipient.But in 160 pages of written testimony made public Friday, Maritz denied ever saying the words attributed to him by one witness during a November 1995 meeting with Intel Corp.

"I never said, in the presence of Intel personnel or otherwise, that Microsoft would 'cut off Netscape's air supply,' or words to that effect," Maritz wrote.

Maritz also flatly denied other central allegations in the government's case, such as charges that Microsoft strong-armed Apple Computer Inc. into distributing its Internet browser software in 1997 and that it intimidated Intel into abandoning a rival technology earlier in 1995.

Maritz accused government lawyers of trying to "portray instances of routine interaction between companies in the computer industry, who inevitably must deal with one another, as something nefarious."

As a group vice president, Maritz falls in seniority below only Microsoft's billionaire chairman, Bill Gates, and its president, Steve Ballmer.

Maritz joined the company in 1986 after working five years at Intel, and he is responsible for Microsoft's most important products, including its dominant Windows operating system and its profitable Office software programs.

Maritz also was a key player in convincing a reluctant Gates to include America Online's software within Windows in exchange for AOL distributing Microsoft's Internet software. The March 1996 deal proved important for Microsoft, whose browser is used by many of AOL's 15 million customers.

AOL buying Netscape for $4.2 billion. The judge on Friday ordered the Justice Department to turn over to Microsoft's outside lawyers some documents submitted by AOL and Netscape related to the purchase.

Microsoft requested the paperwork to investigate whether the deal might rejuvenate the market because AOL can distribute Netscape's browser to all its subscribers, dramatically boosting its popularity.