21st: Let's Get This Straight

Let's Get This Straight: By Scott Rosenberg. All Gates, all the time -- there's no escaping Bill

By Scott Rosenberg

Published March 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Was Bill Gates' appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week a win or a loss? There's no consensus among the press. On one hand, even after having packed the panel with two sympathetic colleagues, Gates had to sit back and stew while his rivals pressed their charge that Windows is a monopoly before a national audience. Then he had to sit calmly while senators grilled him on the details of Microsoft's marketing practices -- and rein in his more typical responses to impertinent questioners, like "That's idiotic!" or "That's nonsense!"

On the other hand, the Capitol Hill appearance was a full-blown festival of Gatesmania, with -- as numerous accounts told us -- senators wisecracking about the horde of TV cameras and schoolgirls "squealing" as they basked in the presence of the richest man in America.

One benchmark for the Gates craze: Slate editor Michael Kinsley's declaration in a column in Time magazine's 75th anniversary issue that Bill Gates has become "a cultural icon, right up there with the beautiful princess who died with her lover in a car crash in Paris." Maybe there's some truth to that; still, it might have been more seemly for Kinsley and Time to leave such judgments to someone who is not on the Microsoft payroll.

Icons are universal and simple to read, but Gates remains an enigmatic figure, and the press corps had a hard time gauging his performance in Washington. Reuters says "Gates was unruffled" by the hearings, while the New York Times says he was "shellshocked" by the end of the day. (Maybe that was just the cracking in his adenoidal voice.) The next day, interviewed by Charlie Rose at the New York Public Library, Gates declared that the experience was "kind of fun."

The New York Post's decision to have a "body language" expert named Hilka Klinkenberg cover the event was doubtless a little eccentric. But Klinkenberg may have been onto something in noticing that Gates' head was shaking "no" as he praised the rise of the Internet -- and that he wore a "tight insincere smile" every time he spoke of competition and innovation by his competitors.

The public is unlikely to follow all the convolutions of Sen. Orrin Hatch's questions and Gates' answers about the tactics Microsoft has used to promote its Internet Explorer browser. In media-event terms, the moments that made the most lasting impact were those that touched on everyday users' experiences. And it was Gates' opponents, particularly Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, who seemed most in touch with the real world. Meanwhile, Gates kept declaring that it only takes "five seconds" to change your browser -- the comment of someone who's been using a fast T1 line for so long he's forgotten that most of the modem-bound world thinks twice before downloading a big program.

Anyone can call a competitor a monopoly. It's much more effective to turn to a crowded committee room and demonstrate the monopoly in action -- as Barksdale did Tuesday. He simply asked the audience how many of them had Intel PCs. When about three-quarters raised their hands, he asked them how many of them used Windows as their operating system. There weren't a whole lot of Linux devotees in the room.

In a similarly unscientific but telling approach, more than one senator had staff members call Dell Computer to try to order a PC with Netscape Navigator installed; Dell's sales reps repeatedly told them that this was impossible. Why? "It has something to do with Microsoft." Everyone who lives and works in the PC universe has a story like this. (When I tried to buy a laptop computer last month, I found the lowest price, called the retailer -- and discovered that they only had one of the model I wanted in stock. Unfortunately, they could not sell this particular IBM computer to me -- one that ships with Lotus' own applications suite already installed for free -- unless I also purchased Microsoft Office with it. Why? The company never told me -- but whatever agreement tied their hands was strong enough that they lost the sale to me rather than break it.)

Microsoft's power in the computer marketplace today is too overwhelming to deny. Gates repeatedly told the senators that Microsoft never forgets it could lose its lead in a flash -- just as IBM once fell to Microsoft's onslaught. But no one at the hearing was able to present a plausible scenario of just how that might occur in the near future. "The only thing I'd rather own than Windows is English," Sun chairman Scott McNealy quipped.

The message from Microsoft -- repeated over and over again at the hearing and anywhere else Gates is visible today, like the cover of this week's Newsweek -- is, We have to innovate or we will die! The government shouldn't stop us from innovating! This mantra might be persuasive if it didn't sound an alarm for anyone who knows Microsoft's history.

Microsoft has been so often criticized for copying or buying up other people's technology, rather than developing innovations in-house, that its latest PR offensive carries a whiff of the old "lady doth protest too much." This is the company that bought its first PC operating system rather than build one from the ground up; Windows itself is still in some ways a clunky copy of the Mac operating system. It's true that today, Microsoft has vast research labs that produce their share of real innovation -- but that's not how the company won most of its battles.

"Operating systems are based on ideas, and no one owns the factory for ideas," Gates told the senators. But if you have a war chest the size of Microsoft's, you can swoop in and buy all the ideas you want. That may not be against the federal antitrust laws, but it's at the heart of the uneasiness so many people in the technology industry feel about Microsoft. In January, when the company's chief operating officer, Bob Herbold, was asked what competing software firms could do when Microsoft decided to fold a product into Windows, Herbold told Bloomberg News that they had three options: fight and lose, sell to Microsoft or "not go into the business to begin with." So much for Gates' professed concern for preserving consumer choice and dynamic, competitive markets.

Aware of this increasing public discomfort with Microsoft's ravenously competitive culture, the company is desperately trying to soften its public image -- why else would Gates subject himself to Barbara Walters and humiliate himself by singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"? This PR effort is the only possible explanation for the hilarious and embarrassing spectacle underway at Microsoft's Slate, where Gates is publishing a daily diary all this week.

Whatever criticisms one may lob at it, Slate has always had some pretty high standards for prose. If musings as vapid as Gates' diary entries had arrived at the Slate offices under any other byline, is there any doubt they'd have been spiked? When he isn't repeating the same arguments he has presented to the Senate about five-second browser downloads and the right to innovate, he is recording flat details ("I stopped by Senator Murray's office and had a doughnut") or expressing a kind of vacant enthusiasm that will be familiar to readers of his "The Road Ahead." Everything is "excellent," "great," "fun" -- except for the James Bond movies he watches on the plane, which aren't as good as they used to be.

Gates' voice here -- diffidently upbeat and affectless in a tone that oddly recalls the Andy Warhol diaries -- lacks the superciliousness that often comes across in his speech. This Bill is either drugged, lobotomized or simply not much of a writer. Any self-respecting "cultural icon" should know better than to show himself in such a poor light.

You could attribute Gates' lack of self-awareness to genuine naiveté or narcissistic arrogance. Either way, the sooner we get over our Gatesmania, the better. This week, we've learned all we need to know about the man's inner life.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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