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Microsoft names "ambassador" to soothe antitrust fears

The software giant appoints a research manager from inside to become vice president of industry initiatives, a new position designed to improve the company's image.

Is there a more cooperative Microsoft in your future?

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant today appointed Linda Stone, a Microsoft research manager, to become the company's vice president of industry initiatives, a new position designed to improve the company's relations with customers, partners and competitors and their image of the company.

"She's basically being appointed as Microsoft's ambassador to Silicon Valley and the rest of the technology world at a time when the worst fears of many of the denizens of Silicon Valley are confirmed in the findings coming out of Judge Jackson's court," said Rich Gray, an intellectual property attorney with Outside General Counsel Silicon Valley in Menlo Park, Calif.

The move is the latest in a number of recent efforts to control the public relations damage caused by the government's antitrust case. The trial turned Microsoft's aggressive, hardball tactics--once viewed as a competitive asset--into a dangerous liability.

District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in early April ruled Microsoft's anti-competitive behavior violated antitrust laws. Federal and state trustbusters late last month responded by arguing that Microsoft's actions warranted breaking the company in two.

Since then, Microsoft has been touting its inner self in TV and print ads. Still, analysts and others are unconvinced a complete change of heart has taken place.

"Microsoft's character is endemic to who they are," said International Data Corp. analyst Roger Kay. "There's not going to be any change of heart in Microsoft and the way they operate. It's in their genetic code."

For its part, Microsoft said Stone will be important in gauging the mood and direction of the industry.

"This is part of a long-term effort to better understand how partners, customers, competitors and others in the industry view Microsoft," said Microsoft spokesman Frank Shaw. "From that, we hope to find out where we're doing a good job, where we need to improve, and hopefully we'll take the lessons from that to improve on how Microsoft does business both inside and outside."

Shaw says the changes are genuine and reflect president Steve Ballmer's customer-friendly management style. "Steve Ballmer has always been known for listening to customers," he said. "And when he took over as president, that's one of things he did, a ton of interviews with people at Microsoft, what they were thinking about Microsoft and what needed to change. He's really in touch with customers, partners and employees."

Gartner Group analyst David Smith sees it differently, with Microsoft acting merely to repair its tarnished public image. He did not see the new image reflecting a changing of the guard to Ballmer from chairman Bill Gates.

"The guy who said, 'To heck with Janet Reno,' is not necessarily the kind of guy I would think to lead a kinder, gentler Microsoft," he said.