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Poll: Microsoft still a favorite

More than two-thirds of Americans hold favorable feelings about the company, according to a Microsoft-commissioned poll.

Three months after Microsoft's antitrust trial began, more than two-thirds of Americans hold favorable feelings toward the software giant, while nearly the same number thinks the government should stay out of the PC industry, a poll commissioned by the company concluded.

Microsoft's approval rating, reported in a poll conducted by the Peter D. Hart Research and Robert Teeter Research, was the highest among four high-tech firms polled. By comparison, America Online received a 53 percent approval rating, Netscape Communications pulled in 40 percent, and Sun Microsystems got just 23 percent.

The poll, which surveyed 1,002 adults nationwide between January 5 and January 6, had a margin of error of 3.2 percent. Its release coincided with evidence presented today at Microsoft's antitrust trial in Washington, D.C., suggesting that the software giant has used public opinion polls in disingenuous ways.

For example, in preparing to make his case last March before a skeptical Senate Judiciary Committee that Microsoft was good for consumers, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates sent out an email to his lieutenants seeking help.

"It would HELP ME IMMENSELY to have a survey showing that 90 percent of developers believe that putting the browser into the [operating system] makes sense," Gates wrote in the email.

What's more, Microsoft researcher Ann Redmond acknowledged in a February 1998 memo that the resulting survey was "not entirely unbiased," and added that she "wouldn't refer to it as an opinion poll," and "would avoid releasing" one of the questions to the press.

The evidence was introduced after Richard Schmalensee, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor testifying on behalf of Microsoft, relied on the survey to argue that Microsoft does not hold monopoly power.

According to the survey, released today, two-thirds of Americans believe the government should stay out of the personal computer industry, while only 25 percent said the government should pursue its antitrust case against the software giant. The poll was referring to the ongoing trial in Washington, D.C., in which the Justice Department and 19 states allege that Microsoft has illegally maintained what they say is a monopoly in PC operating systems, and that it tried to establish a new monopoly in Web browsers (See related story).

The poll is consistent with past polls, including two that were not commissioned by Microsoft. For instance, in a June 1998 survey paid for by the New York Times and CBS, a majority of those surveyed said Microsoft employs "legally acceptable" business practices. However, a majority also believed Microsoft to be a monopolist, and said that the government should continue investigating the company.

Microsoft, for its part, vigorously denies that it holds monopoly power.

More recently, Business Week found that the approval rating of Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates had not suffered, despite the repeated showing in court of a videotaped deposition in which Gates appears evasive and unresponsive.

Reuters contributed to this report.