Lately, Microsoft has been running television ads featuring its chairman, Bill Gates, reassuring investors, employees, software developers and other business partners that his company is moving ahead despite legal setbacks, that a great company will become even greater, etc., etc.
The theme of the Gates ads and the theme of the Gates actions of recent weeks -- is that nothing is really wrong. For example, two days after the Clinton Administration struck a major blow against the company and touched off the high-tech debacle in the stock market by winning a favorable decision from the judge in the Microsoft trial, Bill Gates attended a White House conference on the "digital divide" (which, like the antitrust complaints against Microsoft, is another imaginary problem that Washington seeks to fix, but that's a story for another day…).
Anyway, during one session, here was Gates sitting next to Bill Clinton, the man whose Justice Department was seeking to destroy or at least badly damage a technology company that had brought fast, cheap computing to tens of millions around the world. Gates' spokesperson reported that the Redmond entrepreneur was excited to come to the White House to share policy ideas with the president (!).
The next day, many newspapers featured a photo of the two men smiling as they sat next to each other. It reminded me of the famous 1992 CBS interview conducted with the two Clintons, but this time with Bill Gates playing the part of Hillary. Womanizing was the issue, but Mrs. Clinton's presence was telling the nation, "If it doesn't bother me, why should it bother you?" By his presence, Gates was saying the same thing. Like Hillary, he was acting as an enabler of bad behavior.
If I were Bill Gates, I would have pointedly turned down the invitation to the White House. In addition, I would be direct in criticizing my antagonists. Yes, investors, employees and partners need reassurance, but whom does Gates think he is kidding? All of these people read the news and watch the stock price. They know what is going on. What they see is the CEO being disingenuous, pretending nothing is wrong when something truly is.
If I were Bill Gates, this is what I would say in my next TV spot: "Most of you have seen the news. The Justice Department, in league with attorneys general and trial lawyers, have relentlessly attacked this company on behalf of our competitors. Naturally, we will abide by whatever legal decisions are rendered, but we have no intention of changing our course, which is to defend this company, which a few friends and I started a quarter-century ago in the great American tradition of entrepreneurship.
"Since then, we have helped bring down costs and raise standards so that a powerful computer, which a decade ago would have cost $10,000, today costs less than $1,000. You can buy a computer today for less than a television set, less than some radios even. Computers are making our lives easier; they are finding cures for diseases; they are helping educate our children.
"Consumers understand what Microsoft has done, which is why, by a margin of six-to-one, they think we have helped, not hurt, them. But, unfortunately, politicians have listened, not to consumers, but to our competitors. One thing I have learned about technology is that the best products win. Software that gets the top reviews in the computer magazines, software that consumers truly love that's the software that is adopted. We learned this lesson the hard way with our product Microsoft Network. America Online, frankly, has whipped us, because up until recently AOL has had the better product. We learned the same lesson with word processors, networking software and browsers.
"But what worries me about the political attack on Microsoft is not the damage to Microsoft. It is the damage to high technology in general. Look at what has happened in the stock market since the Microsoft decision: $2 trillion in value has been lost. No wonder. Investors are scared that political intervention will continue and that every successful company will be vulnerable to politicians and lawyers. The tens of millions of investors who own Microsoft stock, either through individual shares or through mutual funds or annuities, have seen the value of their holdings decline $150 billion in two weeks. That's a loss of real wealth.
"I have to tell you something: I am angry. Consumers, not lawyers, should decide the future of Windows. Consumers have not complained about Microsoft. To the contrary.
"When offering a free browser as part of your operating system becomes an offense punishable by the break-up of a corporation not to mention the removal of tens of billions of dollars of value from a corporation's worth -- then something is wrong. Who, today, can argue with a straight face that the Internet is not an integral part of any computer and that the browser the piece of software that helps you navigate the Internet should not be part of a computer's operating system?
"But we aren't talking technicalities here. We are talking freedom. I will do what I can to stand up for the freedom of any person to pursue a dream, to start a company, to help people live better. How can I, or anyone, do less?"