business

Still Messin' With Bill

Bill Gates is back on the defensive. When U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin rejected the consent decree negotiated by the Justice Dept. and the software giant, he set off a frenzy of renewed criticism among Microsoft Corp. rivals. Once again, competitors are talking antitrust. "There are certainly grounds for an antitrust suit," says Novell Inc. CEO Robert J. Frankenberg. "The question is whether that is the best way to spend our energy."

So far, none of Microsoft's critics have taken formal action. But both Novell and ASCII Group Inc., which buys for independent computer dealers, confirm they have been approached by attorneys proposing civil antitrust suits against Microsoft. Sources close to Apple Computer Inc. say it has been asked to join, too. Gates isn't happy about the buzz. Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have already gone through "every possible piece of mud that anybody could come up with against us," Microsoft's CEO says.

For now, Gates's most public fight is with Apple, which in February fired off a letter to Sporkin complaining about Microsoft. In his angry response, Gates accused Apple CEO Michael Spindler of duplicity. Apple claims it can't get early versions of Microsoft's Windows, which it needs to make the Macintosh more compatible with Windows. Gates retorts that Apple won't give Microsoft early versions of its Mac programs, even though Apple provides them to other software makers. He also blasts charges that Microsoft is vengeful toward foes as "an absolute lie. We don't have an enemies list."

STINGY RIVALS? Maybe not, but the company doesn't lack for angry rivals. Novell, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Taligent all echo Apple's complaint that Microsoft is slow to share new versions of Windows, though most companies' executives won't be quoted saying so. Each of them markets competing operating-system software. "There is no doubt Microsoft is out to kill us," says Novell's Frankenberg. "This is not paranoia. They really are out to get us." Microsoft executives counter that these rivals all are stingy about sharing information with Microsoft.

For now, Gates says he's content to let the federal courts finish their review of Sporkin's ruling. He's confident Microsoft will be absolved and refuses to concede that his tactics need to change. "This is a fiercely competitive business," Gates says. Rivals may have him on the defensive, but Gates isn't backing down.

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