In the Microsoft cafeteria in Redmond, Wash., the government's antitrust suit against the company is frequently discussed among people who (like me) have no inside knowledge of what is actually going on in the negotiations. Slate, the online magazine I edit, is owned by Microsoft, so discount anything I say accordingly as you please. But having lived and worked among them for four years, I have found the attitude of folks inside the company pretty interesting, and maybe you will too. Not people like Bill Gates, or those who write the legal briefs and press releases, but the ordinary software developer in the cafeteria. Call him the Man in the Plaid Flannel Shirt.
He or she (mostly he, of course) is, above all, aggrieved. The grievance was well expressed by a midlevel manager when Al Gore "was on campus" a few months ago. At a Q&A session, he told the Vice President, in essence: I've been a Democrat all my life, because I believe in the values the Democratic Party represents. But I also work very hard, and I believe that the work I do is helping make life better for people. Yet now my government is telling me that the work I do is actually harmful. So should I believe my government is wrong, or should I believe I'm devoting my life to hurting people?
Fortunately for Gore, he was able to duck the question on the ground that he couldn't comment on an active lawsuit. If Gore had wanted to be mean, he might have asked how many stock options his interrogator had and whether that number had any impact on his decision to come to work every day. The human capacity for grievance is deep and universal. Even among these most rational members of the species, grievance seems immune to the reality that "unfair to Microsoft" is the world's least sympathetic cri de coeur, even if it's true.
Nevertheless, it surely counts for something that the typical 'Softy truly doesn't recognize himself or his work in the description of Microsoft promulgated by the company's critics. He probably hasn't read the legal documents in the case, and is unqualified to judge the legal issues anyway. Even hardened criminals may concoct some innocent rationale for their crimes and believe it themselves. So the fact that my colleagues feel innocent doesn't mean they are innocent. But it surely complicates the issue. These people honestly believe they are promoting innovation, and they genuinely sense rivals at every turn. If the company is a complacent monopoly ruthlessly suppressing innovation, it has somehow become that way even though the people who constitute it are not.
If one moment crystallized the bitterness here, it was the day after Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's findings of fact last November, which, despite its label, was widely interpreted as meaning that Microsoft was "gonna get nailed." Newspapers across the country carried pictures of the Department of Justice litigators smiling and laughing about the judge's ruling. For the supercompetitive Microsoft types, this was rubbing salt in the wounds. And it confirmed their suspicion that the government was unfairly "out to get" them. It's one thing for an official agency to conclude solemnly that you have violated a vague and complex law. It's another thing for it to celebrate your humiliation.