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Published: Sunday, 5/7/2000

Gates vs. the Justice Department

WASHINGTON - In the silent screen era, villains were overstuffed robber barons with cigars and supersized mustaches and evil designs. You wanted to boo.

Now that the Internet talks, the man the government says is the biggest, richest villain of them all is a nerdster with wayward hair, glasses, an unassuming manner, and a large number of beguiled Americans in his brilliant wake.

Although four out of 10 Americans think Bill Gates' Microsoft is an illegal monopolist, a whopping 60 per cent of them think Mr. Gates is a good role model who is not getting a fair deal from the government.

Trust-busting is not what it used to be.

As the government pursues its plan to break up Microsoft, Mr. Gates is everywhere. He's on television pleading for your understanding as the little guy battling the system. He's giving money to Congress for a new visitors' center. He's filling stockholders' mailboxes with circulars explaining a judge's decision that Microsoft is a monopoly is just a temporary setback.

If Mr. Gates were on the ballot Nov. 7, he'd probably win - whatever office he sought. When it comes to public relations, the government is a tad bit lacking.

The government's problem is the American sense of fair play. To many Americans, Mr. Gates and his pals built Microsoft into a company that mints money and now the government wants to punish it by splitting it in two and that doesn't seem right.

Also, the confusing pain of the AT&T breakup is still with us. Choosing a long-distance phone company is not for the squeamish or anybody without a degree in economics.

The old idea of trust-busting was easy to fathom. The bad guy with, say, a lot of oil bought up more and more oil until he wrote the rules of the game to suit himself. And as he got richer and richer, widows and orphans froze to death in the snow.

The new idea of trust-busting has to do with globalism and operating systems and applications and keyboards and mice and MSNBC and whose browser is more competitive.

The government proposal to divide Microsoft, sniffed Mr. Gates, understandably miffed, "was not developed by anyone who knows anything about the software business.''

Joel Klein is the government's nerdster, a slight, balding, determined graduate of Harvard Law School who explains his pursuit of Microsoft this way: "What cannot be tolerated, and what the anti-trust laws forbid, is the barrage of illegal, anti-competitive practices that Microsoft uses to destroy its rivals and to avoid competition on the merits. That and that alone is what this lawsuit is all about.''

The merger mania of the last few years makes us queasy as bigger and bigger conglomerates decide, for example, whether you can watch Kathie Lee Gifford being stumped by Regis Philbin.

There is no doubt that Microsoft defied anti-trust laws although the details are too complicated to grasp in the nanoseconds most of us wish to spend on it. Also, the harm the government says the company does seems remote to ordinary lives.

The betting, even by some within government and on Wall Street, which plays with Microsoft stock prices as a child toys with a yo-yo, is that the government will lose its fight to "reorganize'' Microsoft.

Breaking up is hard to do whether it's the old Soviet Union, a messed-up couple, or a company that greets us with a cheery little window and its bold black logo every time we turn on the computer.

But Microsoft will be punished. Only 23 per cent of Americans think Microsoft treats its competitors fairly. The same Justice Department that snatched Elian Gonzalez to return him to his father argues that the rule of law must be obeyed and will be relentless. The real issue for the courts is how the feds can tame Microsoft without doing more harm.

Despite Bill Gates' boyish face, air of innocence, and philanthropic largesse, Microsoft is a formidably well-oiled machine that could become even more dangerous to free enterprise and innovation than turn-of-the-century coal and oil moguls if changes aren't made.

Mr. Gates, who became a billionaire before the age of 40 and at 44 is a multi-multi-billionaire, says in his book, The Road Ahead, that "success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.''

The attention and money he is pouring into trying to convince the public he's done no wrong shows he takes his own advice. (He also hired as a spokeswoman a former White House deputy press secretary and an army of top lobbyists.)

If there's a lesson in all this, it may be that the sure road to a secure if predictable future is to work as a lawyer for a company pursued by the government in an anti-trust case.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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