The Desktop Critic: The Dark Side of the Dark Side

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Mac fans always joke that Microsoft is the Evil Empire. We call Windows the Dark Side. We make fun of Bill Gates's schemes to take over the world. But I thought we were kidding. Since the government has started taking a closer look, however, a clearer picture of Microsoft's soul has emerged, and it's disturbing. The following embarrassments are just the tip of the iceberg.

In 1998, as 12 states were preparing antitrust suits against Microsoft, the Los Angeles Times unearthed a brazen Microsoft plot to sway public opinion. Microsoft hired PR companies in those 12 states to flood newspapers and the offices of attorneys general with editorials and letters. These letters, bearing ordinary individuals' names but actually written by Microsoft PR staff, were intended to show "grassroots" support for Microsoft; payments were funneled through Microsoft's main PR company so that the checks couldn't be traced.

According to Brill's Content magazine, Microsoft's media-manipulation attempts don't stop there. Key journalists are courted, given meals and personal invitations to Bill Gates's new mansion; negative reviewers are harangued and bad-mouthed. ("We really believed in this influencer model," says a former Microsoft VP. "The trade press [was] worked from every stage.") Microsoft even hires phony consumers to spread warm fuzzies online– Brill's Content describes the ardently pro-Microsoft cybernaut named "Steve Barkto," who claimed to be a technology officer from Oklahoma. How odd, therefore, that he paid for his CompuServe account with a Microsoft credit card!

All of this helps explain why Microsoft has enjoyed such fawning coverage in the mainstream media, whereas every Apple hangnail is a cue for "Apple Dying" articles.

Midway through its antitrust trial, Microsoft attempted to prove the inseparability of Windows and Internet Explorer by showing the judge a video. Fine–except that the government's lawyer noticed that as the tape rolled on, the number of icons on the desktop kept changing. Microsoft sheepishly admitted to splicing footage from different computers to make its point.

During Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony, his greatest line was: "That depends on what you mean by 'is.' " But in his own taped testimony, Bill G. makes Bill C. look like an amateur, pretending not to know the meaning of words like market share and we , and denying that he wrote e-mails bearing his signature.

Throughout the trial, in fact, Microsoft reps had enough mental lapses to qualify for disability–and silly excuses to explain them. When Microsoft VP Brad Chase claimed that Internet Explorer gained popularity because it's so good , a government lawyer showed him a 20-page Microsoft survey. Its conclusion: most people choose Internet Explorer because "it came with my computer." Chase's dubious response: an intern who had no standing at Microsoft created the document.

At, you'll find reams of data about the security holes in Microsoft Office. A Word document may invisibly store your name, e-mail, URLs, folder names, and more. This data goes along for the ride when, for example, you e-mail your work to others. (A fix is available at On Windows, the company even tracks exactly what kind of PC gear you have. The New York Times reported that Microsoft Office documents contain a "globally unique identifier" that "can be used to trace files back to a specific person"–indeed, that's how investigators tracked down the author of the Melissa virus.

This stuff is real. Suddenly, the jokes about Microsoft's evil ways aren't so funny any more.

Two years ago, I asked a Wall Street Journal reporter why newspapers give Apple such a hard time. He told me that coverage goes in cycles; Apple was a media darling for ten years during the early Steve Jobs era. Now, he said, it was Apple's turn in the doghouse, and Microsoft's in the spotlight. "Don't worry," he concluded. "The pendulum always swings back." The funny thing is, those same reporters unearthed every example of Microsoft conspiracy and media manipulation described here. Look out, Bill–the pendulum is swinging.

July 1999 page: 176

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