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The Attack Dog Who Took A Chunk Out Of Microsoft


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THE ATTACK DOG WHO TOOK A CHUNK OUT OF MICROSOFT

One Saturday last summer, Gary L. Reback turned on the TV in search of morning cartoons for his kids. Instead, he found Attorney General Janet Reno and Anne K. Bingaman, head of the Justice Dept.'s antitrust unit. They were announcing an accord ending the government's protracted inquiry into the business practices of Microsoft Corp. The settlement was "toothless," thought Reback, doing little to protect dozens of his Silicon Valley clients from what he believed were the giant's illegal tactics. Insists Reback: "What Microsoft is doing tears at the fabric of Silicon Valley."

At first, Reback simply stewed. Then, in December, he read transcripts of the hearings before District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin into the merits of the consent decree. Encouraged by the judge's tough questions, Reback led an 11th-hour campaign to familiarize Sporkin with his view of how Microsoft's power threatens smaller Silicon Valley rivals. And he seems to have made his mark: The language of Sporkin's decision largely echoes Reback's arguments.

ENEMY NO. 1. The boyish-looking Reback probably doesn't strike most people as the type who could best powerful Microsoft. But at 45, he could hardly have been better prepared for the case. Born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., he worked his way through Yale University as a computer programmer--a job that forever hooked him on technology. In 1974, Reback earned his law degree at Stanford University. He started out practicing antitrust law in Washington, but in 1981 returned to California to specialize in technology and the law.

Since then, Reback has handled his share of noteworthy corporate battles. He defended Borland International Inc. in a copyright-infringement suit that Lotus Development Corp. won in 1993. (The case is now on appeal.) He also helped Borland and Cadence Design Systems Inc. win Justice Dept. approval for major acquisitions.

In taking on Microsoft, Reback began by circulating transcripts of Sporkin's first hearing to companies. Subsequently inundated with calls from griping software outfits, he signed on three of them and filed papers to Sporkin outlining industry opposition. But he did so solely under his own name, not those of his clients, who, Reback says, are as frightened of Microsoft as "witnesses at a Mafia hit." So Reback, a partner at the Palo Alto (Calif.) law firm of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, has become public enemy No.1 to Microsoft.

Reback hasn't just incited the enmity of Microsoft CEO William H. Gates III. At a hearing in January, Bingaman was so enraged by Reback's comments about the Justice Dept.'s ineptitude that she pounded her fist against the lectern in defending her case. But that hasn't cowed Reback one bit. "The people in Washington are wholly ignorant of how Silicon Valley works," he says. "We don't think the Antitrust Div. was tough enough to stand up to Microsoft, so we have to."

ON GUARD. What do Justice's antitrust attorneys think about Reback? At a Jan. 20 hearing, they argued that he is an interloper whose complaints came months after the end of the 60-day comment period allotted by law. They say his allegations have been thoroughly probed--and rejected. Even in the software industry, support for Reback's efforts is far from universal. "He's writing that brief to get his name in the papers," says one industry source. J. Paul Grayson, president of software maker Micrografx Inc., says he is irked that an issue he thought was settled is now up in the air. Overall, Grayson says, Microsoft has been good for the software industry because it established strong standards.

Whatever his motives, Reback now has emerged as the legal profession's chief Microsoft watcher. From now on, it seems, anyone with a complaint against Microsoft will know who to call.By Richard Brandt in Palo Alto, Calif.


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