Former congressional page Bill Gates spoke at a Capitol Hill hearing on technology issues yesterday and faced just one question relevant to his company's ongoing legal brawl with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) asked the Microsoft Corp. chief executive what he thought the appropriate role of the government was in enforcing U.S. antitrust law was. Robb said he was not referring to any "specific litigation," and several spectators broke into laughter.
Gates replied that the framework of the U.S. economy is rooted in competition. "The framework we have today is a good framework," Gates said. He noted that "the incredible success of this industry in the United States owes a lot to the light hand of government in the technology area, the fact that people can take incredible risks and if they're successful they can have incredible rewards."
Justice department lawyers argue that Microsoft's Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser are two different products that should be sold separately. By combining the two, the government alleges, Microsoft uses the market clout of Windows, which runs on 90 percent of the world's new personal computers, to illegally dominate the browser market. By doing this, the government alleges, Microsoft has an unfair advantage over companies such as Netscape Communications Corp., whose Internet browser product has consistently lost market share to Microsoft's competing Internet Explorer.
Several press people who normally cover Microsoft's antitrust trial attended yesterday's hearing as court proceedings were recessed (it will resume today). They joined an overflow crowd to watch the Microsoft chief headline Day 2 of the Joint Economic Committee's "summit" on high technology.
In Washington, those immersed in public policy are called "policy wonks," Gates earnestly told the committee as cameras clicked around him. "In my industry, these people are called computer geeks, and I'd have to say that I am one."
Gates invoked Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who spoke to the committee Monday about the impact of new technology on the nation's economy -- and who drew about half the crowd Gates did. By next year, the software industry's contribution to the U.S. economy will be greater than the contribution of any other manufacturing industry in America, Gates said, "an extraordinary achievement for an industry that is less than 30 years old."
Groups of college and high school students lined the wooden walls of a Hart Building hearing room to watch Gates, who worked here as a page in the summer of 1972. The crowd also included a handful of protesters, some wearing "Bust the Trust" T-shirts, referring to Microsoft's alleged monopoly practices.
Gates did not mention the antitrust case in his prepared remarks, but he did include some subtle points of note. According to a copy of his speech provided to the media beforehand, he was to say, "We are working hard to develop software that makes computers easier to use." But when he delivered his speech, Gates replaced "We" with "Microsoft and thousands of other companies," as if to underscore the competitive landscape of the computer industry -- a landscape that the government believes Microsoft has unfairly dominated with monopoly force.
Gates also mentioned the "endless speculation" over which companies would reap the rewards of the electronic commerce boom. "The big winner will be the consumers," Gates said. "They will see better prices, more choice, more opportunities to do the things they want to do." The government has claimed that Microsoft's market power has thwarted all those things for consumers.
When Gates concluded his 45-minute testimony at 10:20 a.m., more than half the room emptied out.
CAPTION: Microsoft chief Bill Gates testifies at a "summit" on technology.