Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Geek Revival

By Jim Hanas

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Among heavy Inter-net users, anyway, Microsoft has never been stunningly popular, although a recent poll conducted by Fortune magazine revealed that three-fourths of people think the software giant is one of “America’s great companies.” There’s been concern coming out of Redmond, Washington, however, that the company’s well-publicized battle with the Justice Department has made it suffer in the public eye.

No one disagrees that Microsoft’s responses to a temporary injunction ordering it to decouple its Windows operating system from its Internet Explorer Web browser have been, until recently, entirely devoid of diplomacy. Whether it’s been filing flippant legal briefs defending its right to bundle a “ham sandwich” with Windows or disingenuously interpreting the injunction as an order to deliver a product that doesn’t work, the company’s behavior has certainly lent fodder to those who would paint it as an evil empire.

Barbara Walters

Perhaps realizing the strategy wasn’t working, either politically or popularly, Microsoft and Justice finally settled the matter, with the software maker agreeing to ship Windows with Explorer hidden or partially removed while awaiting an April hearing on the merits of the government’s antitrust case. And last week, just days after the settlement, CEO Bill Gates spoke before the NationsBank Montgomery Securities Technology Week Conference in San Francisco, pledging to step up Microsoft’s efforts to convince politicians and the public that the company is on the right side of the dispute.

So, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to see Gates rocketing softballs – served up cordially by Barbara Walters – over the centerfield fence Friday on ABC’s 20/20. There could have been no better way to kick off public-relations rehab. Gates was described as “one of the most fertile minds in the world” and a man who “can write with both hands,” and asked whether he disliked being called a nerd and whether he’d like to have himself cloned (he doesn’t and he wouldn’t). As for his scuffle with Justice, Walters described Microsoft as “under attack” by the Justice Department as second-banana Hugh Downs asked rhetorically in a voiceover, “Why is the government on his back?” The kicker came, however, when Downs and Walters wrapped up the piece by chatting about the fact that although “the press and the government have been kind of rough on him,” 60 percent of people polled sided with Gates over the government.

But, then again, how could they not? The man can write with both hands, for Christ’s sake.

The New Republic recently devoted its cover story to the excesses of Gates-bashing. As the story points out, however, the specter of antitrust isn’t one of them. Competitor Netscape recently laid off 300 employees after projecting its first losses since it went public in 1995 and has begun giving its Navigator browser away for free to keep up with Microsoft (an arguable boon to consumers, at least as long as Netscape exists). So it stands to reason that Gates has a lot at stake in reviving his innocent-savant roots before the case goes to trial.

And then there’s what Walters described as the mogul’s “[mind-boggling] potential for charity.” It’s a largely unrealized potential, amounting to just $500 million so far, or a little over 1 percent of his total wealth. But there will be more, Gates promises. Some businessmen give to charities to get publicity. Gates gets it by just thinking about it. It was the thread that held the 20/20 piece together and a fact that Gates surely wants to keep before the minds of the unwired majority, the people targeted by America Online’s “I can’t even program a VCR and I’m online” commercials.

So when is the big giveaway coming? Gates isn’t saying. One guesses, however, that he hopes it will be sometime after Netscape is out of business.

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