Microsoft tries to soften its image

This holiday season was different for many Microsoft workers. Those who escaped the Redmond campus to celebrate with friends and family often found backlash against their company where they least expected it -- at the Christmas feast or the New Year's Eve party.

This holiday season was different for many Microsoft workers. Those who escaped the Redmond campus to celebrate with friends and family often found backlash against their company where they least expected it -- at the Christmas feast or the New Year's Eve party.

Once confined to the halls of competitors, the anti-Microsoft sentiment, it seemed, had gone mainstream.

"A lot of Microsoft officials came back from Christmas after being chastised by relatives and friends," Zona Research Inc. analyst Jim Balderston said. "They got an eye-opener that this is a problem on a wider cultural basis, not just among Macheads and Unix geeks."

The backlash -- fueled in part by the company's tangle with the U.S. Department of Justice -- prompted the company to send out a parade of executives to apologize and promise respect in the future. But if last week's court proceedings are any indication, the company is having trouble reconciling its legal duties with its newfound softer side.

During hearings earlier this week, the company issued a sharp reply to U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who questioned Microsoft developer David Cole about the company's response to an order requiring the company to untie the Internet Explorer browser from Windows.

In that response, Microsoft said it would offer computer makers alternatives to its bundled products that are either outdated or do not work.

"It seemed absolutely clear to you that I entered an order that required you to distribute a product that would not work -- that's what you're telling me?" Jackson asked skeptically.

Cole's retort: "In plain English, yes ... it wasn't my place to consider the consequences."

Microsoft officials also accused the government of muddying the issue and the judge of loosely wording his order.

Analysts and legal experts alike say such responses could anger a judge who's mulling both a contempt charge and a $1million-per-day fine requested by the DOJ.

But those were hardly the biggest tactical errors the software giant has made since the DOJ filed suit in October accusing the company of violating a 1995 consent decree by forcing computer manufacturers to bundle IE with Windows.

The company has suffered the most criticism for offering bunk products in response to Jackson's December preliminary ruling that it must untie IE and Windows.

Microsoft also has come under fire for accusing the government of lacking technical experience, and for trying in vain to remove a special master from the case, a Harvard professor who will later report his findings to the judge.

Jackson sharply rebuked Microsoft in the latter instance, calling the company's court filing to oust the special master "defamatory," and "not made in good faith."

But Microsoft maintains its aggressive approach is central to winning the case.

"We're going to court to vigorously defend our right to develop great new products," Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn said. "The outcome of the case affects our ability to listen to customers, give customers what they want, and push the envelope in terms of innovations."

Sohn also warned against confusing strongly worded testimony and filings with a bad attitude. However, Balderston said increased anti-Microsoft sentiment has blurred the lines.

"By nature, by definition, court proceedings are adversarial," Balderston said. "To say this somehow is Microsoft being arrogant because it's defending its point of view speaks to this cultural backlash. Companies are supposed to defend themselves in court."

But not surprisingly, Microsoft opponent Gary Reback said the court proceedings are merely putting Microsoft's strong-arm tactics on the public stage.

"I think the whole world is seeing the Microsoft we've grown accustomed to in the high-tech industry," said Reback, an attorney and longtime Microsoft basher who represented opponents when the original consent decree was drafted. "They have no respect for their customers, partners, institutions, or public opinion for that matter."

In fact, Reback said the company's courtroom tactics are mild compared with its actions behind closed doors.

"This public behavior is their kindest and gentlest face," he said.

More News | ZDNet

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