For almost three days this summer, in a windowless conference room at Microsoft headquarters near Seattle, Gates resisted them during 20 hours of verbal jousting between the world's richest man and the government's top lawyers bent on proving him a predatory monopolist.
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Gates, admired and loathed for Microsoft's remarkable influence within the technology industry, won't testify to defend his company during the historic antitrust trial in Washington entering its second week.
But he is such a central figure that government lawyers planned to show videotapes in court Tuesday of hours of his pretrial depositions, then release the tapes to television stations.
But the government had to postpone its plans to show portions of Gates' videotaped testimony after Microsoft questioned how many hours the government can show without having to count Gates as a witness. The judge has allowed each side just 12 witnesses to limit how long the antitrust trial lasts.
In the tapes, Gates discusses his fears that Internet software by rival Netscape Communications Corp., coupled with a new programming language called Java that doesn't require the Windows operating system, threatened his lucrative Windows.
The government contends Microsoft struck back against Netscape, first by offering illegally to divide the Internet software market, and then with a no-holds campaign to "crush" the company by wielding its role as the maker of Windows, used by more than 80 percent of the nation's desktop computers.
The spectacle of millions of TV viewers watching Gates on tape bobbing and weaving through tough questions could be a public relations disaster for Microsoft, even if Gates testifies to nothing incriminating.
Gates is no wallflower: A favored phrase is, "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of." He's known to scream at Microsoft executives and even throw things during meetings. Gates met with the Federal Trade Commission in 1993 during an unrelated investigation and told a commissioner in exasperation, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
He was largely reserved during his depositions this summer, but he clearly grew frustrated when lawyers rephrased some of the same questions he believed he had already answered.
"The problem with Gates is his being evasive," said Stephen Houck of the New York attorney general's office, who deposed Gates dring most of August 27 as the lead lawyer for 20 states suing Microsoft. "It takes a long time to get a straight answer out of him."
Microsoft bristles over charges that Gates appears disingenuous.
"It's almost an attempt by the government to distract attention from the real issues of the case with the celebrity of Mr. Gates," said company spokesman Mark Murray. "People know ... a deposition is an extremely one-sided affair where the government was trying to get any kind of information, even if it was a distortion or taken out of context."
Microsoft selected a dozen of its own witnesses for the trial, mostly its top executives, but not Gates. The government also chose not to call him.
In earlier court filings, the government complained that Gates "displayed a particular failure of recollection". They criticized his testimony as "part of a pattern of Microsoft attempting to rewrite history."
Gates, for example, reportedly was among Microsoft executives who claimed not to know what a browser is. A browser is software used to view information on the Internet. The company prefers to describe "browser technologies," which it said were built into Windows.
"When you see the videotape, he was very evasive, nonresponsive, even on the obvious things," said Houck. "All in all, he was not a forthcoming or credible witness."
Illustrating the importance it attaches to Gates, the government showed part of his videotape testimony last week on the first day of trial. It used the video excerpts, matched against internal company e-mail, to suggest Gates lied during his deposition.
When Justice Department lawyer David Boies asked Gates about an alleged illegal offer Microsoft proposed with rival Netscape during a June 1995 meeting, Gates said: "I wasn't involved in setting up the meeting." Boies later showed e-mail from Gates days before the meeting suggesting "a very powerful deal of some kind we can do with Netscape."
Asked by Houck whether Microsoft considered investing in Netscape, Gates began characteristically rocking back and forth in his high-backed leather chair and answered: "Somebody asked if it made sense investing in Netscape" and said he had disagreed. But the government later showed e-mail by Gates that read: "We could even pay them money as part of the deal, buy a piece of them or something."
Microsoft responded by showing evidence that Netscape invited Microsoft to invest in the company as early as December 1994.
Written by Ted Bridis