'World War 3.0': Microsoft's saga

January 14, 2001|By Michael Stroh | By Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

"World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies" by Ken Auletta. Random House. 436 pages. $27.95

Microsoft and its lawyers will return to a Washington appeals court next month for round two of its historic antitrust battle with the U.S. government. At stake is whether one of the most successful and influential companies of the 20th century will survive intact into the 21st.

For anybody who didn't get enough of U.S. vs. Microsoft the first time around -- or just didn't get it, period -- New Yorker writer Ken Auletta has just published his much anticipated behind-the-scenes account of the historic court battle.

"World War 3.0" follows the trial from its opening skirmishes through its conclusion and aftermath. Thanks to a combination of dogged reporting and unique access to key players such as Bill Gates, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson and attorneys for both the government and the software giant, the book is by far the most definitive account of this landmark trial to date.

In many ways it's an unlikely subject for a 400-page narrative. Unlike a murder, U.S. vs. Microsoft, at heart, is a case that hinges on arcane legal and technical issues. Nonetheless, the nearly two-year saga received widespread coverage in the popular press, which quickly seized on the case's David-vs.-Goliath elements and the irresistible, almost ghoulish, urge to see the world's wealthiest citizen and hard-charging businessman knocked down a peg or two.

Auletta is skilled at making both antitrust law and the inner workings of Microsoft Windows if not interesting, at least palatable. But it's the personalities at the heart of the trial most readers want to know about. And it's here "World War 3.0" falters a bit.

There are some revealing moments, such as when we watch Gates erupt into a child-like tantrum at a conference, while his wife, Melinda, looks on horrified.

By carefully reconstructing closed-door discussions within both legal camps, Auletta brings out some fascinating new details. One of the most surprising: how close the two sides came to settling the case during the lengthy but ultimately doomed mediation efforts before the trial judge's final ruling.

Gates, it turns out, was more flexible than anybody ever suspected, repeatedly swallowing his pride and acceding to government demands he had publicly said he would never accept. As Auletta reveals, it was the government -- especially several states' attorneys general -- whose capriciousness and bumbling eventually sunk the effort.

The reporting is exhaustive, and at times exhausting. At one point, for example, Auletta quotes verbatim and at length from documents passed back and forth across the mediation table. At times like this, one wishes "World War 3.0" spent less time dwelling on minutia and more time probing motive.

Many anecdotes from the trial itself will be familiar to anybody who followed the case closely in the newspaper. It may not be entirely Auletta's fault.

Despite extensive access to key players on both sides of the courtroom and four lengthy post-trial interviews with Judge Jackson, Auletta also seems to have had difficulty getting some of them to drop their guard.

That's especially true with Jackson -- the one figure besides Gates whose mind is most interesting. While the bear-like jurist does reveal that it was Gates & Co.'s continued arrogance that ultimately drove him to find the company guilty of antitrust violations, it's a revelation one suspected already from the courtroom.

Still, Auletta's narrative can be gripping -- especially during scenes in which government lawyer David Boies, who Judge Jackson later confides is one of the most talented litigators ever to appear in his courtroom, slices and dices cocky Microsoft executives on the witness stand like so many tomatoes.

Or when the reader relives the trial's most enduring image: that of the world's richest man rocking back and forth during his videotaped deposition like a 4-year-old, professing not to understand even the most basic words in the English language.

While the book, parts of which were more palatably excerpted in the New Yorker, serves as an excellent primer for anyone trying to understand the trial, its key players or how the high-tech industry is changing in the new millennium, "World War 3.0" will likely appeal more to hardcore business and legal junkies than Grisham fans.

Michael Stroh has covered technology issues for four years, the last two and a half for The Sun, for which he covered the Microsoft trial. He previously has worked at the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

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