WASHINGTON -- Panelists at Ralph Nader's anti-Microsoft conference Friday morning pleaded with companies to stand up to the software giant.
Samuel Goodhope, special assistant to the Texas attorney general, said his goal was to prevent the information superhighway from becoming the "Bill Gates toll road."
"We need you to come forward. You cannot be afraid to come forward or we cannot have an investigation," Goodhope said. "If you're afraid to give us any information, it doesn't do us any good."
Texas is one of several states investigating Microsoft for anti-competitive practices. The U.S. Department of Justice also has charged Microsoft with violating a 1995 antitrust agreement, a charge Microsoft denies.
Christine Varney, a former Federal Trade Commissioner who is now an attorney at Hogan & Hartson, a law firm which also represents some Microsoft competitors, urged attendees to share information about Microsoft's business practices.
"If you have evidence, come forward," Varney said. "The larger antitrust case will come later, but this is an important first step."
Nader said he's holding the conference, in part, to provide more fodder for investigations against Microsoft, but many companies declined to participate.
"There are companies slated for extinction by Microsoft who wouldn't come to the conference, who wouldn't make a presentation," Nader said. "They were terrified. I've never seen anything quite like it."
( Nader talks about who feared coming to the conference and why.)
Nader plans to reveal more about Microsoft's intimidation tactics in a speech Friday afternoon.
He doesn't think the DOJ will go so far as breaking up Microsoft. Instead, he's counting on consumer backlash, and the Internet's power to reach people, to rein in the company's rapid expansion.
( Nader says Microsoft has to watch out for consumers.)
But will the conference really spark a grassroots anti-Microsoft movement?
Thomas Prendergast doesn't think so.
Prendergast whose company, Shared Medical Systems, builds medical software that runs on the Windows platform, called the conference's case "pretty weak."
"They're your standard 'anybody but Microsoft' camp," he said.
Prendergast said it's actually cheaper for his company to have only one platform to write to.
But others said it's important to raise public consciousness because monopolies are just plain dangerous.
They said although Microsoft's products are relatively low-priced, or even free, that will change if the company obtains sole control over access to the Internet and other information.
"It seems to be a naked effort to destroy competitors," said Mitch Stone, who founded a Web site called "Boycott Micro$oft" last year.
"I think this is the beginning of a much higher level of consumer frustration," added Stone, who said his only connection with the technology industry is that he uses a personal computer every day. "The movement has to start at the consumer level."
About 400 people are at the conference, including lawyers, government workers and employees of Microsoft's competitors. Nader said he gave out some free tickets, including 40 to Microsoft rival Novell Inc.