Gates trails antitrust deal – but is he stalling again?

He claims talks, the states say nay, so is MS spinning?

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MS on Trial It's quiz time again: what have Sir David Frost, a forthcoming Microsoft dictionary, British merchant bankers Schroders, the Microsoft trial, Computer Weekly, Variety and Bill Gates in common? Well, Gates agreed to be interviewed yesterday at the Variety/Schroders media conference in New York (incorrectly referred to as the Scroders/Variety conference in most media today, following an error in a Reuters story). So why was Frost doing the interviewing? Well, he's about as soft and sycophantic as they go, has had at least two previous involvements with Microsoft, and is therefore acceptable to Gates' PR minders. Yesterday not much was said about the antitrust case, and what was said is nothing but an attempt to give cheer to those who voluntarily bought Microsoft products. Gates reflected what was already in a roughly drafted document now with the DoJ and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who leads for the 19 states. Gates said: "There are ongoing discussions and I won't speculate as to the probabilities or anything, but I hope it does get settled." Any settlement would have to preserve Microsoft's "ability to innovate Windows, the ability to maintain the integrity of Windows as a fully designed product." With these provisos, Gates said that "As long as we can keep those intact, it would be great to settle the thing." This requires some parsing. So far as the "innovation" comment is concerned, we have been unable to identify any innovations from Microsoft that are still on offer. As to maintaining "the integrity of Windows", this hints that Microsoft might be willing to open up the code, providing it was still controlled by Microsoft. As to settlement, Microsoft would clearly like to drag on private settlement talks for weeks, but it will not be able to get away with this. In previous discussions with the DoJ last May, Microsoft showed just how devious it was in so-called negotiations. Gates at that time intervened and forced Microsoft negotiators to back-track on what had been offered. In June/July 1995, former antitrust chief Ann Bingaman forced Gates to take part in a conference call, because it was clear that he was pulling the strings behind the scenes. There are few leaks so far, but the NY Times this morning carries a report citing somebody who has seen the proposal. It seems Microsoft is prepared to give way a little on the first-screen issue. Apparently the document does not mention breaking up Microsoft, or an essential facilities move (putting Windows code in the public domain), or licensing Microsoft products on standard terms with a published price list, or open-monitoring of Microsoft contracts. California attorney general Bill Lockyer said that the Microsoft offer (in a document being described as a "framework") was "far from what anyone in our group would expect to be adequate." Jennifer Granholm, the Michigan attorney general, said the states want "something with teeth, something that works, unlike the previous [consent decree], but not "to disembowel the company". [What kinds of law do they have in Michigan: still hanging, drawing and quartering?] Other remarks by Gates from the Frost interview covered his concern about the valuations of high tech companies, including Microsoft. Gates also said he was unimpressed by Hollywood's use of technology internally - but this could reflect his sour grapes that Linux was used for the Titanic special effects. Gates' first encounter with Frost was in an interview in November 1995 at the launch of Gates' first book, The Road Ahead, when Frost's TV company made a programme about the book. Frost was busy again last year when he chaired the announcement that Bloomsbury, the publishers, were working on a dictionary for Microsoft. A year earlier, it had been announced that Bloomsbury was contracted to produce (another) book of quotations, but this soon became the "World's first global dictionary" as Microsoft's announcement so modestly put it (it is due in August). Frost told us at the time that he would be doing another TV programme on the dictionary launch, but he didn't know about the second book at the time. Gates liked a press report quoted by Frost (and no doubt supplied by Microsoft PR in what was clearly an interview controlled by the handlers) that the DoJ wanted Microsoft to be "nicer to its competitors": "I think that's a pretty good summary," Gates agreed. It is just a coincidence that Gates was in New York yesterday, and will be in Washington today, pushing "his" book. It is unlikely that he will have any direct talks with the DoJ or the states. At lunch in Washington today, representatives of the attorney generals will discuss Microsoft's proposal. Oh yes, the Computer Weekly connection: bonus points for anyone who worked out that the Variety/Schroders conference was organised by Cahners, owned, as is Computer Weekly, by Reed Elsevier, despite rumours that Microsoft might be taking a stake. FASHION NOTE: Gates turned up in a blue suit, a dark red textured tie, new thin-framed specs, and with a new very-short haircut. No reason for this makeover was offered: it could be a result of Mrs Gates' advice, or a decision by the great man (and his minders) to change his image. Why could that be? EDITOR'S NOTE: The haircut will likely cause massive reorganisations within the MS hierarchy, which contains numerous second, third and lower tier Gates wannabe execs. (You all know who you are). The key to this, so far, has been the haircut, which given approximately the right colouring makes it easy (albeit no less sickeningly creepy) for them to achieve a striking resemblance to His Billness. We even clapped eyes on a Korean one from LG (no, we don't know why either) on a plane a couple of years back. Will these stranded fashion-victims now all top themselves? ® Complete Register trial coverage

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