Ask Bill Gates, the founder and chairman of Microsoft, about something he wants to talk about-like a new software system or his upcoming railroad trip through China on Chairman Mao's train -- and he acts like the teenage boy that he still resembles. He grins. His voice breaks. He tucks his elbows into his lap and rocks back and forth as if to contain his excitement. But press Gates on a subject he doesn't want to talk about-like the charges of anticompetitive, and possibly illegal, business practices that have been turning up lately, like ex-girlfriends at a wedding party -- and he is liable to throw a tantrum. "I challenge your facts!" he shouts when confronted with a new but relatively minor allegation. "That's a lie! I mean, it's just not true. I never heard of any such thing. What a bunch of nonsense!"
It is a curiously revealing moment. All the more so when a company spokesman concedes a few days later that this particular charge -- that Microsoft required potential competitors to tell the company their product plans before they would be allowed to participate in a Microsoft developers' conference-is well documented.
Up until now, Gates has largely controlled the unfolding of his remarkable story. At 39, he seems to have achieved the information age's equivalent of the American Dream. Through intelligence, ruthlessness and hard work he dominates a technology so central to modern life that it touches nearly every office, school and desktop. He is very, very rich and so powerful that even his enemies are eager to cut deals with him. Now he wants more, a piece of all the action-the bills people pay, the phone calls they make, the news they read, the TV they watch. But he may have reached that point in the arc of his success where the very qualities that raised him high could start to drag him down.
If Gates is feeling a little cranky these days, he has good reason. The Justice Department just derailed his $2 billion bid to acquire Intuit and its popular Quicken electronic-checkbook program, a deal that would have helped realize Microsoft's ambition to make money from almost every commercial transaction in cyberspace. Another team of government lawyers is snooping around asking questions about Microsoft Network, the new online service he plans to launch in August. And an antitrust suit that has been hanging over his head for nearly five years -- and which he thought he had settled last summer -- is in legal limbo, held hostage by an ornery federal judge.
Despite the company's reputation as a juggernaut, Microsoft is running into some unexpected snags in the marketplace as well. Gates wants desperately to seize control of the so-called local area networks, where more and more corporate business is done. But the company is having trouble developing a product that can compete with Lotus Notes, which dominates the market for "groupware" (the software that helps people brainstorm over these networks). Novell's NetWare still controls two-thirds of the market for the software that runs the office systems, despite Microsoft's best efforts with Windows NT. And Microsoft's sql Server is still struggling to win customers from Oracle, which owns almost half the market for the critical database software that stores the corporate world's most important information.