Did Gates Goof? The Media Jury Says Yes

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The Thursday-morning quarterbacks of the business world are busy today as the smoke clears from yesterday's Microsoft ruling. Sure, Judge Jackson's decision was short on suspense, but his long-awaited breakup directive has nonetheless provoked reams of op-ed pieces and widespread, smug speculation: How did the world's preeminent high-tech company wind up hurt and humiliated on the altar of antitrust law — and at the hands of a self-described pro-business judge, no less? While explanations for Microsoft's demise vary wildly, a growing number of pundits are shining an unflattering spotlight on the company, its lawyers and, especially, Bill Gates.

The Washington Post levels several particularly savage swings at the boys in Redmond, charging Microsoft management with maintaining an attitude of "fatal arrogance" throughout the trial. TIME senior technology reporter Chris Taylor agrees. "There were two reasons Microsoft came off so badly during their time in the spotlight: their arrogance at the trial and their general arrogance as a monopoly." Judge Jackson himself, in an interview published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal, admitted he was underwhelmed by Gates' blasť attitude toward the government's case. "I think it's evident to every spectator here," the judge told the court after viewing Gates' videotaped testimony, "that for whatever reason Mr. Gates has not been particularly responsive to his deposition interrogation."

It's worth noting, for the sake of argument, that just as the Microsoft case dumped government lawyers smack in the middle of virgin legal territory, Gates et al. were also challenged by a vast array of unknowns. No one had ever seen (or worked for) a company as rich or powerful as Microsoft, so the preexisting rulebooks were essentially useless. But while pleading ignorance might have worked for another, less aggressive corporation, Microsoft wasn't exactly blindsided by the Department of Justice. "This didn't just happen all of a sudden," says Taylor. "The company's been under some kind of investigation since 1990, first by the FTC and later by the DOJ." And while the glacial pace of the proceedings may have lulled Microsoft management into a false sense of security, says Taylor, it also provided them an invaluable opportunity to take stock of their situation and make some hat-in-hand gesture to a wary government. Needless to say, that's exactly what they failed to do.