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.

world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice