Partisans on either side of People v. Microsoft can agree on one thing: The computer giant did a remarkably shoddy job of defending itself. In “World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies,” media critic Ken Auletta expertly charts the company’s self-destruction in the courts of law and public opinion.
While acknowledging the harm of misguided lawyering and inept stabs at PR, Auletta largely blames Microsoft chairman Bill Gates for the antitrust suit’s outcome. From his truculent deposition to his ill-fated effort to portray Microsoft as a humble servant of consumers, Gates dug his own grave, Auletta contends — and ace government attorney David Boies promptly shoveled on the dirt. If they weren’t already tweaked by Tim Robbins’ scenery-chewing portrayal of a Gates-like autocrat in the recent film “Antitrust,” chiefs of burgeoning conglomerates would be wise to sample Auletta’s tantrum-by-tantrum indictment.
“World War 3.0” doesn’t blaze many new trails, drawing heavily on past reports (including the author’s own pieces in the New Yorker). But thanks to fresh interviews with many key participants — including 10 rare hours with U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson — and the perspective afforded by the passage of time, the book is a comprehensive and absorbing account. It serves as both a topical commentary on new-media consolidation and a worthy document for posterity of one of history’s great legal showdowns.
Auletta excels when detailing the day-to-day courtroom battles held, as he notes, “in the same thirty-eight-feet by fifty-eight-feet courtroom in which Judge John J. Sirica had tried the Watergate defendants nearly 25 years previously.” These trial passages don’t reach the exalted levels of nonfiction legal potboilers like Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action,” but they do lend a compelling narrative structure to the seemingly dry proceedings. Jackson chews ice cubes to stay awake. Boies shows up at court wearing the same outfit as the day before. A pack of 20 reporters confer in the hallway about how they will describe the day’s news.
These details, occasionally trivial but often adroitly observed, have been lacking in most accounts of the Microsoft matter. Auletta’s writing offers more starch than sugar, but it conveys the authority and scope of decades spent as a media chronicler. He knows when to slip in a choice nugget from years past, such as the fact that Gates was the first one to call DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg with an offer of support after Katzenberg parted ways with Disney’s Michael Eisner.
The reader benefits most from Judge Jackson’s hindsight, most memorably in regard to Gates’ demeanor during his deposition, and particularly in highlighting Boies’ decision to play a videotape of the deposition in his opening statement.”It was a masterstroke,” Jackson enthuses to Auletta. “Look at the witness’s testimony. I’ve seen enough witnesses in 19 years on the bench and 18 in practice to know when witnesses are evasive, dissembling, defiant, arrogant. All of those qualities were evinced in that deposition.”
Later, in assessing lead Microsoft attorney Bill Neukom’s inability to persuade executives to explore a settlement or alter their “hard core” stance, Jackson concludes: “I don’t think he’s very smart. … He’s the general counsel of this company. He should have said (to them), ‘Look, you guys can’t do this. Now is the time to be flexible.’ ”
Auletta never declares outright support for the government, but his esteem for their legal acumen and handling of the press ends up tilting the book against Microsoft. A cogent final chapter entitled “Microsoft Loses Even if It Wins” argues that the software company that defined the PC age and shaped life in the 20th century is doomed to soldier on in the shadow of other “media colossi” of today while years of court appeals elapse. Instead of Vivendi Universal, a CBS-enriched Viacom and AOL Time Warner, Auletta likens Microsoft’s profile with that of IBM, another massive concern hobbled by a lengthy antitrust trial.
The sagest observer of this fate is John Malone, the mogul who once walked in Gates’ shoes as a target of federal antitrust scrutiny while building his cable TV empire.”Now they’re in the barrel,” Malone tells Auletta. “There’s going to be a pile of civil lawsuits. Now, if you’re Bill and his guys, you’re all the time on defense, all the time giving depositions. You’re just harassed to death. Your stock is in a funk. It’s not so much that the world thinks you’re the bad guys; it’s that the perception is that government regulators will hold up any deal. … Whether they win or lose on appeal, this is a setback.”
As an example, Malone says News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch chose to make a deal with Nokia rather than Microsoft for supply of satellite platforms, mainly to minimize regulatory headaches.
Hollywood can glean plenty from “World War 3.0,” particularly in these days of darkening labor skies and anxiety-provoking global mergers. Above all, industryites ought never to forget one basic lesson afforded by the Microsoft trial: Be polite.
“Even if Bill Gates upgrades his haircuts and he and (CEO) Steve Ballmer and Microsoft appear more grown-up, it is probably too late,” Auletta writes. “Microsoft has been too consistently careless, offended too many with their brusque behavior, denied too much.”