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Gates makes no apologies. "Any operating system without a browser is going to be f______ out of business," he says. "Should we improve our product, or go out of business?" Later, on his trip to Japan, he returns to the subject in a two-page E-mail. "Customers are benefiting here in the same way they benefited from graphical interfaces, multitasking, compressions and dozens of other things," he writes. "If improving a product based on customer input is willful maintenance of trying to stay in business and not have Netscape turn their browser into the most popular operating system, then I think that is what we are supposed to do."
Though the stakes are clear, the law (which was developed in the era of railway barons) is not. After deadlocking, the Federal Trade Commission in 1993 surrendered jurisdiction over Microsoft to the Justice Department. FTC Commissioner Christine Varney, an expert in the field, says it's hard to apply antitrust law in a fluid situation. "My concern is with the law's ability to keep pace with market conditions in fields that change so rapidly," she says. "Once it's clear a practice is anticompetitive, the issue may already be moot."
Longtime competitors raise a more philosophical issue about Gates: his intensely competitive approach has poisoned the collaborative hacker ethos of the early days of personal computing. In his book Startup, Jerry Kaplan describes creating a handwriting-based system. Gates was initially friendly, he writes, and Kaplan trusted him with his plans, but he eventually felt betrayed when Gates announced a similar, competing product. Rob Glaser, a former Microsoft executive who now runs the company that makes RealAudio, an Internet sound system, is an admirer who compliments Gates on his vision. But, he adds, Gates is "pretty relentless. He's Darwinian. He doesn't look for win-win situations with others, but for ways to make others lose. Success is defined as flattening the competition, not creating excellence." When he was at Microsoft, for example, Glaser says the "atmosphere was like a Machiavellian poker game where you'd hide things even if it would blindside people you were supposed to be working with."
It comes down to the same traits that his psychologist noted when Gates was in sixth grade. "In Bill's eyes," says Glaser, "he's still a kid with a startup who's afraid he'll go out of business if he lets anyone compete." Esther Dyson, whose newsletter and conferences make her one of the industry's fabled gurus, is another longtime friend and admirer who shares such qualms. "He never really grew up in terms of social responsibility and relationships with other people," she says. "He's brilliant but still childlike. He can be a fun companion, but he can lack human empathy." "If we weren't so ruthless, we'd be making more creative software? We'd rather kill a competitor than grow the market?!?" Gates is pacing around his office, sarcastically repeating the charges against him. "Those are clear lies," he says coldly. "Who grew this market? We did. Who survived companies like IBM, 10 times our size, taking us on?" He ticks off the names of his rivals at Oracle, Sun, Lotus, Netscape in an impersonal way. "They're every bit as competitive as I am."