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MS nixes Google hire

Phoney war

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Microsoft has succeeded in preventing the head of its search research team jumping ship to Google. Google has been hiring several well-paid employees to add to its collection of PhDs and old farts accumulating over in Mountain View.

Microsoft, however, drew the line at the hiring of Kai-Fu Lee, a VP at Redmond and alumini of Apple and SGI.

But the hiring has caught the fevered imaginations of parts of the press as a superpower in panic - agitated beyond comfort by the emergence of an economic competitor. A CNET editor, perhaps eager to be in line when the next batch of embedded reporters are due to be sent off to the frontline, trumpeted the news with the headline "Microsoft, Google duke it out for China".

A bit melodramatic, you might think - but wait till you read the lawsuit. We'll come to the particulars in a moment.

The nut(s) of the case is that Lee had signed a standard no-compete agreement which Google, which he breached by joining Google before the cooling off period had expired.

That's pretty clear cut, and Microsoft knows this. In 2000, Microsoft lost around £3m ($5m) in an unsuccessful attempt to poach a rival from a company, and get him to begin work before the no-compete agreement had expired. The employee was Juha Christensen, and the plaintiff was Psion, then the largest shareholder in the Symbian venture, a consortium of phone vendors who'd decided to pool their resources and create a competent, cheap and acccountable rival to Microsoft.

Christensen was sent on "gardening leave" when the High Court ruled in Psion's favor.

(A strange footnote to this case is that when Christensen finally joined Microsoft, he was bidden from mentioning his previous employer's name in public. Whether this was a part of the no-compete agreement, or simply a straightforward case of paranormal possession of the sound system he used on each occasion, we have never to this day been able to prove. Despite persistent questioning over the years.)

So Microsoft lost the case badly. However Juha, who had been hired for his apparently supernatural schmooze talents with phone OEMs in the formation of Symbian, turned out not to be the saviour of Microsoft's phone business that his new employers hoped, and four years later Juha still hadn't snagged a major phone OEM for Redmond. Then again, the consortium turned out to be not so much an equal partnership as a case of Nokia left holding the baby, as Nokia's "equal partners" either imploded or looked the other way.

Microsoft has also tried mass recruitment from a rival before.

In the early 1990s it attempted to hire away as many employees from tools rival Borland as it could. Over thirty made the journey North, leading to the formation of an informal "Dead Borland Society" on a rocky outcrop in Redmond. This too went to court with an eventual cash settlement in favor of Borland - "no wrong doing", "I never touched her, guv" - but for Borland, this was scant compensation for the loss of the architect of Turbo C++ and then Delphi, Anders Heljsberg, who defected with his team.

But yesterday the court declined the florid arguments of both parties, and Microsoft's no-compete clause prevailed.

How?

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