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King of the geeks to get his come-uppance

Michael Lewis hopes the Microsoft trial will teach us not to let monopolies spin out of control
I'VE SPENT most of the past three weeks in a courthouse in Washington watching the US government sue Microsoft for alleged monopolistic behaviour. The judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson, intends to rule against Microsoft on the technicalities, as far as I can tell. But quite what long-term impact this will have on the company is unclear.

Of course, court is still out, or rather, in. And there are different ways in which the judge might rule against the company. But rule against the company he must, as it is now impossible to imagine him closing the ceremony with a paean to Microsoft's essential innocence.

For the past three weeks he has been lied to by Microsoft and its lawyers and, most spectacularly, its chief executive officer. The judge looks to his right and sees Bill Gates saying that he never did anything to hurt anyone. Then he looks to his left and sees the e-mail and the memos from inside Microsoft that proves the company enjoys a monopoly - and enjoys using it to destroy others.

Indeed, from the evidence already available, the judge can see that Microsoft has created a three-step formula for dealing with anyone who discovers a great way to make money in computers:

1) Offer to split the market the way a sumo wrestler offers to split a pie.

2) Threaten to put the offending innovator out of business, using absurd geek hyperbole ("We're talking about knifing the baby'').

3) If options 1 or 2 fail, deny the innovator the technical information he needs to make his software compatible with Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows operating system. While he flounders in limbo, use your monopoly profits to create a poor imitation of his own product, and compel all computer makers to build it into their machines. If the computer makers balk a little, threaten to knife their babies, too.

But what must bring the judge's anger to a high boil is that there is not much he can do about any of this. Seldom outside politics is anyone formally accused, much less convicted, of perjury. And the District of Columbia appellate court, which has been proven hostile to anti-trust cases, has strongly hinted it intends to overrule any verdict the judge might render against Microsoft. And so Judge Jackson, who has the air of a man who is used to getting his way, suffers not merely the indignity of being lied to but the indignity of being lied to by people who, he knows, are going to get away with it.

But to the judge, the Microsoft trial is merely a lawsuit. He will render his verdict and move on with his life. To the rest of us, though, it need not be so dull. There is another, more hopeful way of looking at the Microsoft trial: not as a doomed attempt to restructure an omnipotent monopolist, but as a useful bid to teach the monopolist moderation. The Microsoft trial is not merely a legal event. It is a social ritual. Consider Bill Gates. The world's richest man is now, rightly, enduring ridicule for his business tactics and courtroom mendacity about them.

Gates's behaviour suggests an essential ignorance: until now he has had no idea whatsoever how his actions appear to outsiders. Clearly, no one who thought he was doing anything wrong, and was therefore likely to be hauled before a judge, would say to his rivals: "What do we have to pay you to screw Netscape?'' or: "Our goal is to undermine Java." He would be more artful, which is another way of saying he would be more finely attuned to the social context within which he operates.

But the hallmark of the technogeek is social idiocy. By instinct and temperament he was never meant to be so closely watched. After a lifetime of being suspended from the branches of tall trees by his Fruit of the Loom underpants, he is now surprised to find that he is sufficiently powerful to be considered a menace.

After all, there is no precedent in history for men with so little muscle definition menacing anyone at all. But precisely because of that they have no role models who might have taught them how to behave - how, in effect, to disguise and modulate their power. The megalomaniacal Microsoft geek is a social problem, as well as a legal one, and it has social remedies as well as legal ones.

Michael Lewis, the author of 'Liar's Poker' and 'The Money Culture', is a columnist for Bloomberg News. He recently wrote about the Microsoft trial for 'Slate', the online magazine owned by Microsoft.