Snipes and sniggers at the house that Bill built

It has been a bad week for Microsoft. David Usborne reports from New York

IT WAS one of the more surprising assertions made by Microsoft as it stands trial in Washington on charges of monopoly abuse. One of its lawyers got to his feet one day last week and suggested that the company had been forced to become "paranoid", so numerous were the challenges to it from thrusting new rivals.

In the context chosen by the lawyer, Michael Lacovara, the claim was a hard one to swallow. He specifically cited the growing popularity of a software system named Linux, which is available for free over the internet from a tiny North Carolina outfit called Red Hat. The fact remains that Microsoft is still capitalised at $280bn (pounds 169bn) and has its Windows systems on no less than 90 per cent of the world's PCs.

And yet paranoia may be what Bill Gates, the man who created Microsoft, and his lieutenants in Redmond, Washington State, are feeling this weekend after seven days that brought the company nothing but bad news. It was not just that the tide, by general consensus, seems to have turned against Microsoft in the trial. It was also taking a bruising from beyond the nation's capital.

Arguably, in fact, this was the worst week that Mr Gates can remember. It prompted a stream of articles and columns implying that the empire he has built with such astonishing success since his nerdy student days may finally be on the brink of disintegration.

In Washington, the government aggressively continued to press its case that Microsoft has for years used its dom- inance in the software sector to freeze out competitors such as Apple, Netscape and even IBM. Prosecutors have made hay with a welter of evidence, including a series of company e-mails that seem to illustrate a pattern of dastardly tactics.

But where Microsoft is suffering the most seems to be in the videotaped deposition that Mr Gates gave to the government back in August to avoid having to appear at the trial in person. All last week, prosecutors played extracts of the video. They portrayed a chief executive apparently unwilling to show much respect for the judicial process and dodging the questions whenever he could.

Most telling, perhaps, has been the sniggering and guffawing from so many in the courtroomthat has punctuated the showing of the Gates interview. Even Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who must ultimately decide the case (there is no jury) has been seen repeatedly chuckling and shaking his head. When lawyers for Microsoft protested at a meeting in chambers with Judge Jackson that the government was showing snippets of the deposition out of context, the judge tellingly replied: "I think your problem is with your witness, not the way in which his testimony is being presented."

Another blow to Microsoft came late on Tuesday from a different courtroom, in California. This was a preliminary ruling in a separate lawsuit brought against Microsoft by its bitter competitor, Sun Microsystems. At that trial, Microsoft stands accused of taking, under a licensing agreement, the Java software language originally invented by Sun and altering its code slightly. According to Sun, this has undone the central characteristic of Java, namely that it should be useable on any software platform, whether it be Microsoft, Macintosh or IBM.

In his ruling, Judge Ronald Whyte issued an injunction instructing Microsoft to correct the Java code on its Windows 98 software within 90 days. Microsoft said it would comply. It insisted, meanwhile, that its loss in California would have no bearing on the trial in Washington. Among those who were having none of that was Orrin Hatch, the senator from Utah and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He thundered: "I hope that senior executives at Microsoft will begin to see that, in the end, the facts and the law will prevail over its public relations campaign and muddled defences."

On Wednesday, Microsoft suffered yet another setback. Reports surfaced that America Online was considering ending its exclusive agreement with Microsoft to use its browser, Explorer, as its customers' gateway to the worldwide web. That contract ends on 1 January, and AOL is believed to be close to an agreement with Netscape to adopt its Navigator browser, either as an addition to Explorer or as an outright replacement. It was news that caused Microsoft shares to sag on Wall Street. Shares in AOL, by contrast, rocketed 11 per cent. Net-scape's stock by Wednesday's close was up by no less than 34 per cent.

No wonder all the gossip in the industry was of impending doom and disaster for the house Bill Gates built. Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist John Ellis confessed to being confounded at the speed at which the tables appear to be turning on Mr Gates. "Microsoft, long the nation's most admired corporation, has almost overnight become its most reviled," Mr Ellis concluded.

Many forecast that Judge Jackson will find against Microsoft when the Washington trial finally concludes in several weeks. But it is also virtually a foregone conclusion that Microsoft will suffer no immediate effects of such a ruling because it would instantly appeal to the US Supreme Court.

There is one consolation for Mr Gates: he does not appear to have lost the support of the general public. A CNN-USA Today poll, published last week, showed that 56 per cent of Americans retain a favourable opinion of him. That figure compares with 55 per cent last March before the antitrust trial opened. A Business Week/Harris poll found that 32 per cent of those surveyed expressed admiration for Mr Gates, down only from 37 per cent in June. Meanwhile, only 8 per cent said they disliked him, which was unchanged since June.

This may reflect distaste among Americans of anything that smacks of government bullying. Or it may simply mean that nobody is paying much attention to the antitrust trial, which may be of even less interest to Main Street than the Clinton impeachment proceedings have been.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power