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The dissection of Microsoft

Ken Auletta puts the software giant under the microscope as he peers into the trial's inner workings

Bill Gates is not only the world's most visible computer executive, he is said to be the world's richest man. His company, Microsoft, is the most controversial business to be labeled a monopoly since Rockefeller's Standard Oil.

No wonder Ken Auletta, one of America's premier media critics, wanted to write about Microsoft's battle with the government.

During an interview from his home in New York City, Auletta spoke disarmingly about what he learned in writing his latest book, "World War 3.0: Microsoft and its Enemies," the story of Bill Gates and his company's recent court battles. (Gates lost the first round when the court ruled that Microsoft is indeed a monopoly and should be broken up, but the appeal process began just recently.)

Though this may initially sound like a complex topic for the average reader, Auletta is gifted in his ability to bring the world of Microsoft down to earth and make it accessible to the general public. "I had to get my brain around the subject first. I'm not a computer nerd nor a lawyer. But part of the lure was to take a complicated subject and make it user-friendly to those who have little or no background in it."

According to Auletta, "Oftentimes when you encounter people who know too much, they can't explain themselves. They assume you know more than you do. The Microsoft lawyers in this case were burdened with too much information. But some of the stuff is much more simple than you think."

Prior to the publication of the book, Auletta wrote a 25,000-word piece about the Microsoft trial for The New Yorker (August 1999). At that point, both Gates and other representatives from Microsoft decided not to talk to him any more. A month later, they changed their minds. Since the publication of the book, Auletta has heard nothing from Gates, but he doesn't mind because "I'm not writing for him."

When he was a child, no one forecast Gates' highly-publicized and successful tenure with Microsoft. Yet, he admits today that he most identified with such aggressive, rebellious souls as Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby."

"He also identified with the Steve McQueen character in the movie, 'The Thomas Crown Affair,' " said Auletta. "He's David fighting Goliath. The more interesting question is, how is it that a man, one of the most powerful in the world, feels like an outsider?"

The best answer for Gates' success, in Auletta's opinion, is the one offered by another mogul, Warren Buffett: "It's like baseball's Ted Williams, a .400 hitter. It's his DNA that makes him successful."

Auletta sees Gates as the Rockefeller of his generation: "They both had enormous wealth, they were philanthropists, they were accused of vicious corporate behavior, they were family men and somewhat mysterious. Both had ostentatious homes."

Auletta compares Gates' deposition with Clinton's in the Lewinsky episode. "They were both not telling the full truth. Neither wanted to volunteer information. Clinton split hairs. Gates split hairs. When people don't want to tell the truth, they split hairs. Both looked equally ridiculous, Gates more so than Clinton. As beleaguered as Clinton felt, you still saw the Clinton charm. There was no Gates charm."

Perhaps the most interesting result of the book is Microsoft's amended brief, which cited the book 22 times, arguing that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson should be overruled, maybe even taken off the case because of what he said to Auletta. It appears, said Auletta, "that my book has become part of the trial."

Auletta has been asked if he had "ethical compunctions" about talking to Jackson. "I laugh and say, 'My job is to get people to talk — not to get them to shut up!' He talked to me, and I'm grateful he did. Before we talked, I looked for examples of judges talking to reporters about pending cases, and I couldn't find any. He told me on the record that he issued a blunt opinion and that he imposed on me the requirement that this information was only for the book."

Generally, Auletta has a high opinion of the judge, even though the judge sometimes dozed off.

"I thought he was underestimated by Microsoft. He ran a tough courtroom, and he is smarter than they gave him credit for being. He was not technologically oriented. He was an old-fashioned, conservative jurist, whose heroes are John McCain, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. He wanted the government's role in business to be small, but he was offended by Microsoft. I think his decision to support the government proposal to break up Microsoft without a hearing is vulnerable to appeal."

On the other hand, Auletta is convinced that the "marketplace is really breaking up Microsoft as we speak."

One of Microsoft's sore points is that neither the judge nor the lead government attorney, David Boies, is computer literate. "Boies basically said, 'I don't need to be a technological expert to parse Microsoft's intentions and credibility.' He asked if it was the intention of Microsoft to hurt Netscape or help consumers. He thought it was real simple, and the judge felt the same way. Boies made a complex subject simple."

Judge Jackson ruled that Microsoft acted in a predatory manner toward its competitors. Auletta believes that Gates engaged in warfare, "trying to kill his opponents," but he doesn't think a break-up of the company is justified. "I think they should be punished — but the market place is punishing Microsoft now. A break-up would be a major social experiment. It would be complicated, involving tremendous bureaucracy to oversee Microsoft."

Auletta believes the result of the appeals process will remain historically important for the way the government deals with potential monopolies. He is unsure whether he will write a follow-up article about the final decision. After his book tour, he will return to the media beat he enjoys so much at The New Yorker.