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Tech Industry

Microsoft, Sun learn from the politicians

I'm struck by how many technology executives today are sounding like politicians. Last week's annual conference of the Software Publishers Association in Chicago reinforced that impression.

    Before I began covering the technology business, I wrote a lot of political stories. I'm struck by how many technology executives today are sounding like politicians.

    Last week's annual conference of the Software Publishers Association in Chicago reinforced that impression. It featured keynotes from both Microsoft and Sun Microsystems and what was billed as the first face-to-face debate between the anti-Microsoft and pro-Microsoft front organizations.

    SPA has become a key player in the political and public relations battle around the Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft. SPA has urged action against Microsoft, which happens to be SPA's biggest member. That's courageous, foolhardy, or treacherous, depending on your perspective.

    Sun keynoter John McFarlane, president of Solaris software operations, gave a typical political stump speech for Java--"Windows is not the answer."

    McFarlane positioned Sun's joining SPA a year ago as "a counterbalance" to Microsoft, a term used by politicos.

    Microsoft keynoter Tod Nielsen, who heads Big Green's developer relations, gave a polished and entertaining presentation dubbed "State of the Software Industry: Myths and Facts," shrewdly playing off the annual presidential "State of the Union" address. One attendee called it "great presentation, crummy content."

    Nielsen opened to laughs, saying he couldn't do a top ten list of state attorneys general who are mad at Microsoft because there too many. The rest of his talk subtly pushed Microsoft's messages on the antitrust case.

    The dramatic moment was the well-delivered and melodramatic mea culpa for Microsoft: "I apologize for arrogance in past, and this is a sincere heartfelt apology. Let's build a relationship going forward so you and Microsoft can be successful."

    Frankly, I almost missed his intended sincerity, since Tod's top ten opening had me waiting for the punch line.

    The contrition recalled not only another politician's recent remorse, but also earlier Microsoft regrets. In January, just before Microsoft was hauled before a federal judge on contempt of court charges, chief operating officer Robert Herbold issued an equally contrite apology to the judge and federal prosecutors.

    This convergence of political and techno-jargon is no surprise--when the Justice Department sued Microsoft, a market battle was transformed into a legal battle and political fight.

    Microsoft and its industry rivals have hired political types to wage the PR and political war. Press coverage has been extensive, even of legal maneuvers ignored in other trials.

    After a brief stint in the press office of a political campaign several years ago, I know why.