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Heated Microsoft debate in letters

U.S senators and the software giant's top-level executives are trading barbs in behind-the-scenes letters on the antitrust battle.

The sharpest barbs being traded between Microsoft boosters and its foes are not being aired in public, but rather in letters exchanged behind the scenes among U.S senators and the software giant's top-level executives.

In these letters--now four and counting--Microsoft senior vice president William Neukom, Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Washington), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) are in a three-way battle royale over the company's public relations campaign to win support for its position.

In one of the latest letters, dated May 5, Hatch alleges that Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates and executive vice president Steve Ballmer "personally called a number of executives in the [PC] industry, urging them to sign" a letter in support of Microsoft. The letter was signed by 26 industry leaders, including Andy Grove of Intel, Eckhard Pfeiffer of Compaq Computer, and Rob Burgess of Macromedia (which still generates significant sales from Mac-related products).

Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray said Gates and Ballmer did indeed call the executives but that they did not exert any pressure on them to sign the letter.

In a response dated today, Gorton dismissed Hatch's correspondence as a "six-page Netscape analysis of its antitrust complaints against Microsoft."

The war of words underscores the depth of the debate over Microsoft as trustbusters ponder a second lawsuit against the software giant. It also shows how the company is dividing free-market Republicans. Gorton comes from Microsoft's home state, while Hatch comes from the state of Microsoft foes Novell and Caldera. Both senators say that their positions are based on broad principles rather than pressure from home-state constituents.

Hatch launched the first salvo in a letter to Gates last week. In it, he accused the company of trying to concoct "a concerted campaign...to generate precrafted protest statements" by PC makers in support of its position.

"I am especially concerned by reports that Microsoft is contacting potential witnesses and urging them to voice public opposition to possible law enforcement actions," Hatch wrote. He added: "I would find it troubling were the target of an investigation using its relationship with potential witnesses and others...to frustrate legitimate efforts to enforce the laws."

Only one day passed by before Hatch's fellow Republican, Gorton, shot back. (Gorton did not explain how he received a copy of a letter that was addressed to Gates, not to him.)

"I was astounded by your letter to Microsoft," Gorton wrote. "You leave me shaking my head. Equally unwarranted is your attempt to deprive Microsoft of its fundamental constitutional right to defend itself publicly." The closing line: "I have advised Microsoft that it should feel itself under no obligation to respond to your most recent missive."

But Microsoft responded anyway. "You are apparently misinformed," Neukom told Hatch. "The industry letter expressly states that the signatory companies do not 'express an opinion on the merits of any investigation of Microsoft.'"

The letter concluded: "It is noteworthy that, as you are aware, several of Microsoft's competitors and other detractors are spending large sums of money in a coordinated campaign to lobby the government to take action against Microsoft, including what we understand to be extensive contacts with your committee staff.

"In the face of such concerted action, it is especially appropriate for Microsoft and other leaders in the personal computer industry to express their concerns about any government effort to delay the release of innovative software that will benefit consumers and the entire industry."