Dispatches

The Microsoft Trial

William Saletan is a Slate senior writer.

Microsoft Plays Dead

Every Slate writer assigned to cover the Microsoft trial has been obliged to confront the question of Slate’s relationship to Microsoft. (Short answer: They own us.) My confrontation occurs when I visit the courthouse press room to pick up the packet of documents that will be the focus of today’s session. I see dozens of document bins assigned to news organizations covering the trial, but none for Slate. The attendant tells me that Slate hasn’t paid to join the press consortium, so I don’t get a packet. “But there’s a bin for Microsoft,” I point out. Indeed there is, says a Microsoft representative standing a few feet away. And no, I can’t touch it. I slink away.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Downstairs in the courtroom, today’s session begins with an exchange over whether Microsoft should have coughed up a document that the government thinks will help its case. A Microsoft lawyer offers the judge several reasons why the company 1) didn’t turn over the document; 2) didn’t have to turn over the document; and 3) didn’t mind turning over the document. The judge seizes on the third point. If Microsoft doesn’t mind turning it over, he says, then just turn the damned thing over. Later, a Microsoft spokesman explains the exchange to reporters: “We didn’t lose. We caved.”

Caving is definitely this morning’s theme. Microsoft executive Paul Maritz is on the stand, fielding questions from Microsoft attorney John Warden. Warden is the most aptly named character in this drama. His round glasses, chubby face, and bulbous lips generate a disturbing resemblance to the Nazi investigator in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But his laconic drawl is more reminiscent of an Old South sheriff.

Advertisement

In contrast to Warden’s stony implacability, Maritz comes across as meek and courteous. His balding forehead, neatly trimmed beard, and cherubic countenance lend him the aura of a humble English friar. His accent bears conspicuous traces of his years in Rhodesia, South Africa, and England: “advonced … renayzonce … abzurd.” He smiles often and speaks in a gentle, lilting voice. He is unfailingly polite. At one point, he accidentally calls Warden “your Honor.”

Advertisement

Warden’s objective this morning is to show that Microsoft, far from enjoying monopoly control of the operating system market, faces grave threats from all sides. He begins by leading Maritz through a discussion of “open-source” software, which is distributed freely on the Internet in the hope that developers will refine it and write programs for it. Warden underscores that this software lowers the “barriers to entry,” enabling smart entrepreneurs to launch new software into the market.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Maritz plays along. He says open-source programs offer “very high quality” and are easy to get and run from Web sites without having to buy Windows. He extols “the advontages of a network computer.” He calls Linux, an open-source Windows competitor, “a very complete and sophisticated operating system,” adding that more and more companies are producing software for it. In fact, Maritz says, his own son, a college freshman, has just installed Linux on his PC at home–probably “just to annoy me.” Chuckles ripple through the courtroom. Warden asks whether the program was hard to install. Not at all, says Maritz. “He had it up and running in about 30 minutes.” At the trial’s next break, a reporter in my row says he knows the name of Maritz’s son. “Luke Skywalker,” he confides.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Maritz outlines several trends that could soon render Windows “obsolete.” In the future, he says, users may simply plug their computers into cable outlets and get whatever programs cable providers offer. Small, handheld computing devices could wipe out the PC, just as the PC wiped out the mainframe. I glance around the courtroom. Several reporters are using palm computers. During breaks, half a dozen guys in suits chat on cell phones outside. Warden flashes ominous quotes and headlines on an overhead screen: “IBM says PC on its last legs.” “The PC will become a peripheral product.” “Ellison: The Net will break Microsoft.”

By the time the court recesses for lunch, it seems clear what I must do. I must run to the nearest phone and sell my Microsoft stock before Windows becomes extinct. Then I must go home and download Linux, which evidently will give me virtually the same features, performance, and compatibility for free. Only one nagging doubt holds me back: Isn’t Maritz in charge of developing Windows? Isn’t he the guy on whose say-so all those Microsoft salespeople go around explaining why Windows beats the dickens out of Linux and other operating systems? Isn’t everything he’s saying this morning about Windows’ impending obsolescence and its rivals’ virtues exactly the opposite of what Microsoft tells consumers and corporate clients?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The awkwardness of this contradiction spills into the open when Warden displays an article in which an IBM engineer prophesies the PC’s demise. Maritz sings along comfortably until Warden clumsily asks him, “Is the PC about to go the way of the dinosaur?” Maritz pauses, paralyzed between his contrary roles as marketer and witness. “I certainly hope not,” he stammers. The courtroom erupts in laughter.

Later, in front of the courthouse, I watch Microsoft’s spokesmen field questions from the press. They use three basic techniques. If the question plays into their predetermined message, they answer it. If the question is tough but spinnable, they begin their answer with “Let’s step back and look at the larger picture.” If the question takes them entirely off message, they say they don’t understand it. I ask Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray about open-source software. It’s “a whole new grassroots movement” offering “very widely available, high-quality software,” he says. In that case, I ask, why shouldn’t consumers use that software instead of Windows? Murray says he doesn’t understand the question.

Click here for MSNBC’s full coverage of trial developments.

Advertisement