Day two: Microsoft-Google courtroom showdown

Kai-Fu Lee says he gave an honest if not entirely complete answer when he told Microsoft he planned to return after a sabbatical.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read
SEATTLE--Former Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee told a judge here on Wednesday that he was being honest but not necessarily providing a complete answer when asked by Microsoft officials in June whether he planned to rejoin the software giant after a sabbatical.

Lee's response came after King County Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez asked him whether he felt he was being misleading when he told Microsoft executives he planned to return to the company. Lee said that whether he took a job with Google or another company, he intended to return to Microsoft after the sabbatical to wrap up a few projects.

In your mind, was that an honest and complete answer?" Gonzalez asked.

"In my mind, that was not a complete answer, but it was honest," Lee said.

The judge's questions came after Microsoft attorneys wrapped up a morning of cross-examinations of Lee. Microsoft claims that Lee violated a noncompete agreement when he went to work for Google in July and should be barred for one year from doing tasks similar to his duties at Microsoft.

The hearing in Seattle and documents made public in the squabble have already generated sparks between the rival companies, including claims that both Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates engaged in profane tirades in front of employees about Google, its CEO and China. Both Microsoft executives say the accounts presented in court and in court filings weren't true.

On Wednesday morning, Microsoft's questions focused on establishing a time line that includes meetings Lee had regarding China with senior Microsoft executives and his contacts with Google, beginning with a May 7 e-mail that Lee sent to Google CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Microsoft is attempting to prove that Lee was involved in strategic planning for Microsoft's China operations while considering doing the same for Google.

Microsoft is asking the judge to prevent Lee from working for Google on China recruiting and other issues before a trial, slated for January, that will determine whether Lee has to wait a year before beginning work at Google that competes with work Lee had done at Microsoft. Google has stipulated to the court that Lee won't work on speech recognition or search technologies but that it wants the court to allow him to work on recruiting and other issues in China.

Gonzalez has already issued a temporary restraining order that prevents Lee from starting up a China research arm for Google. The two-day hearing, expected to wrap up Wednesday afternoon, will determine whether that temporary restraining order should be extended to January.

Google Engineering Vice President Alan Eustace also testified that though Google has a backup plan if Lee is prevented from joining, "none of those will be as effective" as having Lee available to hire workers in China during an important autumn college recruiting season. In China, college students typically meet in the fall with the companies they'll work for after they graduate.

Both sides are expected to deliver closing arguments Wednesday afternoon. A ruling may not come immediately; it's not clear when Gonzalez will make his decision.