Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates testified Monday in a small antitrust case that concerns events from the mid-1990s—an obscure, almost historical time period when he was directly responsible for the software giant's strategy. But unlike Microsoft's vaunted antitrust case with the US government, this time Gates actually showed up in court. And he was quick to dismiss theories about his actions at the time.
The case dates back a while. In 2004, Novell sued Microsoft, alleging that the company violated US antitrust laws when it launched Windows 95, almost a decade before that.
At the time, Novell owned WordPerfect, a popular word processing program. But WordPerfect was slow to adopt the unique features in Windows 95 and was eventually obsoleted by Microsoft's own Word application, part of the Office productivity suite. Novell then sold WordPerfect at a loss of $1.2 billion, and the company has blamed Microsoft for withholding critical technical information about Windows 95.
Not so, Gates said Monday. Word won because it was the better program.
"We worked super hard [in 1995]," Gates said. "It was the most challenging, trying project we had ever done."
Novell failed to drive improvements in WordPerfect, Gates said. And that, combined with Microsoft's relentless drive to improve its own product, is why Word beat WordPerfect. But WordPerfect had lost well before Windows 95 was released, he added, noting that Word had supplanted WordPerfect as the best-selling word processor for PCs in 1994. "That was an important win for us," he said.
Oddly, Novell—which is now owned by Attachmate, making this case even more convoluted—has admitted that Microsoft was under no legal obligation to share technical details about Windows 95 with it. But the company claims that Microsoft courted it with internal information only to pull the plug on the deal months before Windows 95 shipped. "We got stabbed in the back," Novell attorney Jeff Johnson claims.
Microsoft's attorneys, however, have pointed out that there is no evidence of this deal, and that Novell never officially complained to Microsoft in 1994-1995.The judge in this case, US District Judge Frederick Motz, has openly questioned Novell's claims several times, leading some to believe that he might accede to Microsoft's request for dismissal.
Hey, it only took 16 years.