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Fatal Error

a book review of Ken Auletta's "World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies"
March 1, 2001 |
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Daily coverage of the Microsoft antitrust trial was depressingly predictable. Reporters assigned to the case can't be blamed for churning out pabulum, however, for both sides were exasperatingly tight-lipped. Microsoft, in particular, expertly stymied all journalistic efforts to divine its stratagems, thanks to a phalanx of Waggener Edstrom flacks that surely cost more than the gross national product of Bhutan. Thus the typical newspaper story was heavy on bluster and light on scoop.

World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies, Ken Auletta's blow-by-blow account of the software titan's Waterloo, is the ideal antidote to those bland Podunk Times recaps. The book teems with the kinds of juicy tidbits that make ink-stained wretches go weak at the knees. Auletta, the high-brow scribe behind The New Yorker's "Annals of Communications" section, parlays his quasi-celebrity into unprecedented access. His insider credentials are established as early as the fifth paragraph, when he casually recalls eating lunch next to Bill Gates at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. A $38,000-a-year beat reporter wouldn't even be allowed to refill Gates' glass of Diet Coke.

World War 3.0 is one long affirmation of Sun Tzu's ancient principle of combat: every battle is won or lost before it's ever fought. According to Auletta, Microsoft's pugnacious defense of its business practices was misguided from Day One. The main culprit he fingers is Gates' hubris, his arrogant notion that the government's case amounted to nothing more than vindictive harassment. Auletta elegantly captures Gates' "Why me?" mindset midway though the book, asking the bowl-cutted techno-tsar whether he ever felt like Joseph K. from The Trial. Upon being informed that Kafka's persecuted protagonist could not comprehend the crimes of which he was accused, the literature-impaired Gates exclaims: "He sounds like my kind of guy!"

But Microsoft's mistakes were tactical as well as philosophical. The defense team, headed by chief counsel William Neukom, is portrayed as full of white-shoe bunglers who lacked a taste for the jugular. "Microsoft's lawyers often meandered off into baffling digressions, like joke tellers who never get to the punch line," writes Auletta.

Plaintiff's attorney David Boies, on the other hand, is depicted as something of a mad genius. Slovenly and strange away from the courtroom--he left cases of fine Bordeaux by his office window until the wine turned to vinegar--he morphs into a latter-day Clarence Darrow when the gavel sounds. While Neukom's coterie seemed tentative in attacking witnesses, Boies eviscerated Microsoft's supporters with a surgeon's skill.

Auletta argues, however, that Boies' best work took place outside the courtroom. Boies convinced Jackson to permit the showing of Gates' videotaped pre-trial deposition, during which the New Economy mandarin was coaxed into behaving like a petulant seven year old. Peppered with implausible statements and enough claims of memory lapse to rival an Iran-Contra hearing, Gates' testimony virtually sank Microsoft's case before it even began.

A settlement would have been the logical maneuver for the company, and World War 3.0 recounts Microsoft's half-hearted attempt to strike a deal. It is here that Auletta's prose--placid, logical, and delightfully free of Baroque flourishes--shines brightest. He gracefully traces the mediation efforts of Judge Richard Posner, whom Jackson appointed in early 2000 to hammer out a compromise. The back and forth between Washington, D.C. and Redmond is mapped out in rich detail as the two sides futilely cycled through nineteen drafts of a case-ending agreement. Hesitant to blame either side for the negotiation's collapse, Auletta does fault Posner for failing to bring Gates and Justice Department point-man Joel Klein face-to-face. "Perhaps Posner's dry, intellectual approach to legal issues

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