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Monopolizing the conversation

Microsoft earlier this month publicly chastised Ralph Nader for creating a "witch hunt atmosphere" with an "ambush" disguised as a conference in Washington, D.C. Boo-hoo. Poor Microsoft.

Microsoft earlier this month publicly chastised Ralph Nader for creating a "witch hunt atmosphere" with an "ambush" disguised as a conference in Washington, D.C.

Boo-hoo. Poor Microsoft.

Sure, Nader portrayed a slanted view of the company and its practices. Still, it's hard to whip up a lot of sympathy for a company that's been monopolizing the conversation in the computer industry so thoroughly and for so long when it's finally on the receiving end.

Just for once, it was refreshing to hear things from someone else's biased point of view. Were the panels one-sided? The speakers prejudiced? Yes and yes, sometimes to a ridiculous degree. (One speaker even implied that Microsoft chief Bill Gates's desire to dominate the market sprung from a brain disorder. Bring on the black helicopters.)

Microsoft complained that the panels were stacked against it, the conversation tightly controlled. The company wouldn't send its own executives to answer its detractors, but wanted to send conservative scholars and lawyers sympathetic to its views. Nader turned them down. And why not? Microsoft has plenty of forums to express its views. Why shouldn't Nader's organization dictate the terms of this one discussion?

I didn't hear anything about Microsoft inviting anyone to refute Gates's biased comments at last week's Comdex show in Las Vegas.

In his Comdex address, Gates outlined the future of the PC. That future just happens to coincide with that of Microsoft and its products, he told an overflowing audience at one of the largest computer shows. Not only that, but the Justice Department contains a bunch of bumbling, clueless fools and Ralph Nader is the instrument of his personal and corporate enemies, he implied.

It's not the first Comdex keynote the Microsoft chief has given and it won't be the last. According to one Comdex official who declined to be identified, keynote speakers like Gates are often chosen because of their buying power. Speakers don't pay directly for the privilege, the official said, but those who buy a lot of booth space and services over time are "suggested" by Comdex salesmen as keynoters. It's a matter of "partnering," he said.

Microsoft bought a 30,000-square-foot booth on the main floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center at $49 per square foot, according to Len Goodman, vice president of operations for Comdex. That's not counting the Windows NT pavilion (a separate tent on the grounds) and an equivalently sized "Microsoft Partners Pavilion."

Gates used the bully pulpit at Comdex to sketch a benevolent world dominated by cheaper, faster products from Microsoft, with no detriment to the consumer, of course. Who needs competition? But he also launched from the pulpit of Comdex an image makeover of a kinder, gentler Bill, who can take personal criticism, admit mistakes, and laugh at himself. Probably the reason the chairman showed up at PC Week's Spencer the Katt party and cut a rug. Quite a contrast to last year's tightly controlled, frosty TV-only interviews.

But conference keynotes are hardly the entire scope of Microsoft's influence. Gates also writes a nationally syndicated column distributed by the New York Times wire service. He has written a best-selling book that asserts, as his keynote did, that the future of technology converges nicely with Microsoft's plans.

Still, just because Microsoft has so much leverage over the conversation doesn't mean it should just shut up and let critics like Nader, Netscape, and Sun run it down in Washington. It should defend itself.

But rather than answering its critics' charges, the company has chosen to only attack their motives. Yes, motives matter, and pointing out that former FTC commissioner Christine Varney is on Netscape's payroll is a valid criticism. But so far, that's just about all Microsoft has done. If what these critics have to say is so erroneous, then why not delineate their wrongheadedness, point by point?

In fact, the only criticisms Microsoft had direct replies to were that it uses nondisclosure agreements to intimidate licensees that might otherwise report misbehavior to the Justice Department and that it forces content partners to use and promote only the latest version of its own browser, Internet Explorer 4.0.

Microsoft denied the NDA charge, saying it had written letters to both licensees and the Justice Department saying it had never "interpreted" its agreement to apply to law enforcement investigations. Does that mean it might decide to interpret it that way in the future? Who knows? Apparently, however, the letter doesn't satisfy the Texas State Attorney General, who is suing over the NDAs.

On IE 4.0, it sidestepped the issue, saying that users were free to choose any browser they want. Nader conference attendees produced contracts that said ISPs weren't allowed to produce, promote, or in any way suggest they could use any other browser besides IE 4.0.

On specific counts of intimidation, tying, monopoly leveraging, and other allegations, Microsoft has remained defiantly mum, that is until this week's reply to the Justice Department that simply said Microsoft can integrate anything it pleases into the Windows operating system and it's none of the DOJ's business.

It's all part of what Nader called a "typical nonresponse" from the company, a phenomenon he said springs from the company's palpable arrogance and contempt for the law--in fact, for anyone with which it disagrees.

Gates even publicly thumbed his nose at both the Justice Department and Nader in his Top Ten Reasons Why I Love My PC list. Number one was that he could use a Microsoft product to show Nader his Corvair collection, referring to the car that Nader attacked as being "unsafe at any speed." (Translation: Microsoft's march into every possible market can't and shouldn't be stopped by a ninny like Nader.) Number five was that he could reply in one weekend to the DOJ's implicitly frivolous action against the company.

The Comdex audience applauded wildly, as I suspect Nader did from Washington, D.C. "I couldn't buy those comments," Nader said of Microsoft deputy Steve Ballmer's earlier suggestion that Janet Reno go to "heck."

"That does not play well in terms of the motivation of lawyers in the antitrust division," Nader said. "It makes them work overtime."

Even Microsoft's own congressman agreed that software companies should be a little less arrogant in an October speech before Amdahl computer executives. Too often companies dismiss government agencies as mere buffoons when they should be working with them, said Rep. Rick White (R-Washington).

"Ignoring government is a dangerous thing," he said. He might have added that ignoring people who know their way around the Beltway can be equally disastrous.

Somehow, I don't think his constituents were listening.

Margie Wylie often writes about the potholes in the information superhighway on Wednesdays in Perspectives.