Microsoft Gets a Lift

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Has Microsoft found its smoking gun? The Netscape e-mail unveiled in court Wednesday by the software giant's legal team seems like just the sort of boost Redmond needed after days of being battered by the government in the landmark antitrust case. It shows former Netscape boss Jim Clark inviting Microsoft to "take an equity position" in his firm -- more than six months before the June 1995 meeting in which Microsoft allegedly tried to strong-arm its rival into an anticompetitive agreement. The surprise mail was produced with a flourish during the cross-examination of Jim Barksdale; Netscape's current CEO, however, had done his homework. Clark told him, he said, that the message was written "in a moment of weakness."

And that was that. Top Justice Department attorney David Boies accused Microsoft of trying to "change the facts and change the subject." Indeed, nothing in the Clark mail foreshadows what the feds and Barksdale say occurred at the later meeting -- that is, Bill Gates' heavy-handed insistence that Microsoft and Netscape divide up the browser market between them. It's almost as if Bill Clinton had decided to introduce evidence of other philandering presidents into an impeachment inquiry -- interesting, perhaps even mitigating, but ultimately irrelevant. Microsoft's attorneys would like to throw the spotlight on equally dubious business practices elsewhere in the software industry, and this is by no means their last attempt. But this smoking gun, at least, is simply blowing smoke.