The New York Times
November 3, 1998


Taking in the (Web) Site of This Virtual Defense


WASHINGTON -- In the dry paper trail of court deposition, it was simply government exhibit number 1400, recorded last August. But on the Internet of real life on Monday, number 1400 turned out to be the man himself, Bill Gates, Microsoft mogul under fire, suddenly appearing in watery living color, his recorded image slightly dream-like but definitely in motion above the keyboard, his voice firm in fencing with his inquisitors for all the world's surfers to witness, virtually.

"I don't know anything more than what it says in the e-mail," Gates -- his color image slightly tattered, but slightly glowing, too -- could be seen and heard declaring from computer screens at mid-afternoon for anyone who managed to finally join the crowd on the TechWeb site for the special presentation headlined "Microsoft On Trial."

The experience was to see Gates engulfed in his ultimate element, defending himself on the very Web he helped to propagate. It was the media evangelist as message, the person most identified with the Web having to defend himself under oath and on the Web in his pre-trial deposition.

In his testimony recorded last August, Gates could be seen seated at an office desk, leafing through endless printouts of e-mails and warily responding as a witness at the government's antitrust trial of Microsoft.

Consulting documents, brushing back his boyish bangs, Gates was seen seated in his headquarters in Redmond, Wash., defending his realm from charges that he bullied competitors and unfairly monopolized the lucrative world of the Internet and its multimedia offshoots.

The image filtered through the website technology offered a shimmering, blurry edge, as if transferred from deep space. But his voice and the printed scroll of his testimony provided a clear measure that the issue was high-stakes and rooted in the realm of the wordly.

An amateur on the web confronted the usual flood of wonky arcana and remained clueless about such dark sounding e-mail excerpts as someone's bit of corporate resolve to "keep them from sabotaging our platform evolution." And Gates himself was painstaking in sifting through the abstruse terminology that is routine in his electronic universe.

"Have you ever had discussions within Microsoft about the desirablity of trying to undermine Sun because of what Sun was doing in Java?" he was suddenly asked, as if caught in some high-tech James Bond denouement.

"Just the term Java itself can mean different things," he replied, checkmate fast.

Anyone hoping to duplicate the unusual experience last August of witnessing President Clinton's deposition under fire had to be disappointed. Software and monopoly, not sex and mendacity, was at the heart of the Gates deposition. The brand-name of the soft drink Gates quaffed for comfort was not clear in the muddy web images. Like the other chief executive, however, Gates did not hesitate to parse some of the unfriendly questions he faced in defending himself against antitrust accusations from the Justice Department and 20 states.

"I have no idea what you're talking about when you say 'ask,"' he responded to one question in the first trial salvo to be webcast, his image interrupted, then reappearing in blurred motion, shady as a Howard Hughes sighting.

If there was anything new to be noticed about Gates in his celebrity, it was, perhaps, that he was not always the wonk some might understand him to be.

Confronted with one piece of e-mail, he was asked whether he recognized it as a document from Microsoft's files.

"No," he flatly replied, his image floating opaquely on the computer screen as he awaited some counter-attack.

"You don't?"

"Well, how would I know that?" he asked, with his questioner then referring him to "document production numbers" at the end of the e-mail.

"I have no idea what those numbers are," Gates replied with impatience refreshing to any watching non-wonk, hardly apologetic that the webmeister's eye need not be on every sparrow. In similar spirit, he noted that he had never read the government's actual complaint against him. "I've talked to my lawyers about the case," he said, relying on the high-paid specialists from that entirely different web of humanity.

With all his questioners off-screen and the broadcast arriving somewhat disconnected and buffered at times, Gates' deposition came across as something of an anti-climax to anyone craving the sense of a trial's human cut-and-thrust. In the opening minutes of the deposition excerpt, Stephen Houck, a lawyer for the state side in the case, began asking about a Microsoft office "memorandum," but quickly realized how antique he sounded to such a man as Bill Gates.

"I apologize for using my old-fashioned terminology," said Houck, thereafter putting the case and its disputants firmly in an e-mail frame of reference.

On the computer screen, Gates was watching and listening closely, his image blurry but right there, on the web.