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NOV. 2 1998, 8 p.m. ET
This Version of Bill Gates Has a Memory Problem
His videotaped testimony shows a chief exec who often can't recall key E-mail exchanges

Maybe there are two Bill Gates. Gates I is the confident and dynamic entrepreneur who strides before the public at Microsoft-boosting events. Gates II is the chief executive slouching behind a table on a videotaped deposition, rocking as he reads documents, and often telling government prosecutors that he can't recall having written E-mails to Microsoft execs on key company issues. And there was some hair-splitting parsing of words: "Depends on what you mean 'compete,' Gates said at one point, in an exchange that seemed eerily similar to the other Bill's exchange on the word, "is."

Government prosecutors, over objections by Microsoft attorneys, played about one-and-a-half hours of the nearly 20 hours of Gates's deposition taken in August. Most of the excerpts shown to the court dealt with Microsoft's dealings with Apple Computer Inc. Avadis "Avie" Tevanian, a senior vice-president at Apple, has testified in a written document submitted to the court that Microsoft had threatened to cancel its Apple Macintosh version of Office business applications if Apple didn't agree to bundle Microsoft's browser in Mac machines instead of a browser made by Netscape Communications Corp.

Justice officials also accuse Microsoft of trying to kill off Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java software programming language because, according to the government, Java and Netscape's browser together posed a threat to Microsoft's Windows operating system. Microsoft attorneys are scheduled to cross-examine Tevanian on Wednesday.

CALM -- AND TESTY. In many exchanges, Gates denied remembering correspondence with top execs. He also seemed to distance himself from many of the comments Microsoft officials made to him in these E-mails. Justice officials believe that if Gates is seen as less than credible, it could help their case. After the video deposition, former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, hired by Microsoft as a consultant, described Gates as "calm, steadfast, and a gentleman."

But during one long, testy exchange, Gates denied remembering ever having sent an E-mail to senior Microsoft executive Paul Maritz, dated Aug. 8, 1997, that read, "Do we have a clear plan on what we want Apple to do to undermine Sun?" When David Boies, Justice's attorney, asked what Gates meant by those words, Gates replied, "I don't remember." Soon after, Boies asked whether it was Gates's understanding that "Microsoft Office for Macintosh was believed by Apple to be very important to them?" Gates replied, "I really have a hard time testifying about the belief of a corporation. I really don't know what that means."

Boies then showed Gates another E-mail to him from two top executives dated Feb. 13, 1998. The E-mail discussed how Apple wanted to keep both Netscape and Microsoft developing browsers for Mac. "Getting Apple to do anything that significantly/materially disadvantages Netscape will be tough. Do you believe that Apple should be meeting the spirit of our cross-license agreement and that MacOffice is the perfect club to use on them?" When Boies asked Gates what they meant by "the perfect club," he said he didn't know. When asked whether it was Gates's understanding that Microsoft was trying to get Apple to "disadvantage" Netscape, Gates said no. When asked why the officials would write such a thing, he said, "I don't know." When asked whether he told these officials that they were wrong and that Microsoft was not out to harm Netscape, he said no.

Gates also denied that Microsoft ever threatened to cancel the Macintosh version of Office or that Microsoft officials ever discussed such a course among themselves. But in an E-mail to Gates in June, 1997, one company official wrote: "The threat to cancel Mac Office 97 is certainly the strongest bargaining point we have, as doing so will do a great deal of harm to Apple immediately."

After the court's day off on Nov. 3 for election day, the challenge for Microsoft's attorneys is to somehow make that those E-mails appear less damaging during the cross-examination of Tevanian.

By Susan Garland in Washington


Previous BW coverage of the trial

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