Tech Industry

The new faces of antitrust

The support of former Sen. Bob Dole and former judge Robert Bork for the anti-Microsoft fight gives the "Gates Crashers" a whole new set of armor.

Heading into the weekend, I liked the odds, but now it's time for Bill to worry.

Sure, the United States government has been known to chase more false leads than Sculley and Mulder. One year it's a billion-dollar ring of missile-killing satellites in the sky. Next it's a trillion-dollar debacle to save unknown species of spotted fowl. You name it, Uncle Sam has gone after it--often with little more to show for it than a handful of receipts.

That's why a lot of people didn't think much of the Microsoft antitrust investigation that Attorney General Janet Reno launched last year. Sure, the government had its vaunted lawyers, vast reserves of irritating subpoenas, and other assorted legal measures to pester the programmers. But did that really matter?

Barksdale and McNealy could hem and haw all they wanted, but Gates still brought to the table more ammo than even Janet Reno. Microsoft had its partners locked into orbit, a product that the public clamored for, and pockets deeper than the Sultan of Brunei.

And regardless of the intelligence and integrity of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, the experience of Justice on antitrust matters was less than stellar. Ma Bell aside, one had to journey all the way back to the first days of the century and Standard Oil to find another truly profound success.

Moreover, in an age of shrinking government and a diminished appetite for intrusive federal policies, the likelihood of summoning public support for a major government investigation--one that might disrupt the operations of the most successful software company in the country--appeared slim at best.

Guess what. The tide just changed.

The announcement that Bob Dole and Robert Bork are lending support to ProComp should be recognized for exactly what it is: a classic assertion of power politics. The Dole-Bork maneuver is pure Washington, one that undoubtedly has changed the tenor of conversations around watercoolers and espresso stands around the Beltway and perhaps across the country.

Because now, it's no longer Microsoft vs. the government. Now it's Microsoft vs. you.

And that's an argument even Bill does not want to have.

By bringing on Dole and Bork, the Gates Crashers have demonstrated that they not only understand how to play the political game, but they play to win. No longer is this a topic confined to the business section of the newspaper or one that only coders and technonerds care to understand.

It may be that the Dole/Bork coup doesn't come as much of a surprise to longtime D.C. hands. But you don't need to have served as a White House intern to understand why this move will change the dynamic of the debate in a very public way.

First, the presence of Bob Dole on the McNealy/Barksdale ticket gives it an almost regal air. Despite his virtual departure from public life almost 18 months ago, Dole remains one of the few politicians with national name recognition. He is a war hero, a midwesterner with family values--and he collects better approval ratings now than he ever did while in office. In the wake of the 1996 election and the torrent of Oval Office scandal that followed, Dole seems to strike an even more honest and moral figure than ever.

And in Judge Bork, the opposition has thwarted any attempt to describe the case as an act of misguided industrial policy. Bork is one of the patron saints of the modern conservative movement, a living martyr whose very name invokes fear in the hearts of prospective political appointees. There is no doubt that Bork's presence lends intellectual heft (as well as a more material weight) to the anti-Microsoft clique.

In other words, the opposition recognized that they needed surrogates with the political and ideological credibility to challenge Microsoft on a new level. They understood that it was time to turn the debate away from a technical discussion on the distinction between a desktop and a Webtop or why a particular icon appears in users' start menus.

Whether or not you subscribe to their views, few would ignore Dole or Bork--including the political establishment, national media, corporate executives, and other opinion leaders--exactly the people that Microsoft needs to convince.

Before you know it, you will hear the press conferences, read the editorials, see the commercials. So, while today you might be reading about operating systems and software, that's about to change. Suddenly, it's a case about the American way. It's an issue about fairness and honesty. It's a simple matter of right and wrong.

In a race to see who can release the best product, it's a toss-up between Bill Gates and the California crowd.

But in the race for public opinion, with Bob and Bork in the game, it's a no-brainer.

Jonathan Greenblatt served as a political appointee in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1997. He spent two years developing Internet and e-commerce policy at the White House and also worked on international trade issues at the Commerce Department during the tenure of Secretary Ron Brown.