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The Micro soft-shoe

There's a saying in the computer business: If you don't see it Microsoft's way, then you just don't have enough information.

There's a saying in the computer business: If you don't see it Microsoft's way, then you just don't have enough information.

Looks like there's been a little reeducation going on lately. After accusing the software giant of strong-arming its Web browser onto them, computer makers last week recanted their complaints to the Justice Department. Like the skinny kid asked to tell the truth about where his milk money went while the bully who took it looks on, Micron executives said they chose to install Internet Explorer on their computers because it was, after all, gulp, a superior product.

Nobody lives under the watchful eye of Microsoft's Ministry of Truth more than we journalists. Write a story that doesn't spin in the right direction and next thing you know there's a battalion of information officers on your doorstep just dying to gently educate you on the "facts." What usually ensues is a technically perfect soft-shoe around the truth that is so hypnotic, you'd turn your own mother in for pinching a copy of Word by the time they're done.

I suppose that's why I'm so nonplussed that once a year, journalists from leading newspapers and trade publications willingly submit themselves to such an exercise: Once a year, Bill Gates and about a dozen of his closest journalist friends get together for an informal dinner party and sleepover at the billionaire's family retreat on Hood Canal in Washington. All off the record, of course.

Editors and writers from the New York Times, Ziff-Davis (publisher of trade newsweekly PC Week and others), the Wall Street Journal, and, yes, CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM and CNET.COM, among others) showed up at this summer's second-annual shindig.

"There were a couple of people in the initial year who said they didn't know how they felt about it because it was under NDA [non-disclosure agreement]. And we said, 'OK, whatever, it's up to you,'" said Marianne Allison, who helped organize the event for Microsoft's outside PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, "then they decided to come." When possibly the world's richest private individual summons you to an audience, I suppose you don't quibble. You make your flight reservations.

Like most of Microsoft's communications tactics, this is a shrewd one. It's a lot harder to write something really nasty, even when it's true, about a guy or his company after you've eaten at his table, flipped through the books on his shelf, slept in his home. It's only natural you'd pick your words more carefully if you thought you might actually come to the unfavorable notice of Gates or his bellicose right-hand man, Steve Ballmer.

Besides, journalists aren't immune to cults of personality. In fact, it's been my experience that many of my otherwise level-headed colleagues can be dazzled by access to the world's most famous nerd. Many recover pretty quickly, as they would from a fair clout to the head. Some aren't so fortunate. After only two years, the event has become something of a status symbol. At least one reporter begged for an invitation to Uncle Bill's sleepover again this year, even though he was no longer on the Microsoft beat, Allison said.

Of course, all Silicon Valley companies indulge in "spinning" the truth to suit their needs, but nobody does it like Microsoft. The company is so cocksure of its ability to dictate the terms of the discussion that it is fighting battles on two contradictory fronts at once. While the Redmond, Washington, company is arguing in one court that it, and it alone, may decide what components make up its Windows operating system, it's arguing in another court that Sun has no right to do exactly the same thing with Java. Heads you're wrong, tails Microsoft is right.

Still, I can't wait to see how Microsoft's twisted argument that Internet Explorer is actually a part of Windows cleverly disguised as a separate application plays in court. This is one situation the company is going to find difficult to semantically soft-shoe its way out of. Since Microsoft and the Justice Department simply disagree on exactly what the wording of the agreement means, the judge is going to have to rule based on the spirit of the law.

It's going to be hard for the company to smirk its way out of this one. Or at least, one can hope.

Opinons editor Margie Wylie just blew her chance to sleep under a digital Mona Lisa in the world's most expensive Marriott.