Don't look at your calendar, as it's not 1998 all over again. But Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will soon testify in an antitrust hearing related to the business practices he helped foster at the software giant almost two decades ago.
Gates' appearance is the latest step in a long-running antitrust lawsuit that Novell launched against Microsoft back in 2004. But the charges date back even further, to Microsoft's business practices in the mid-1990s when it was gearing up to launch Windows 95. At the time, Novell owned WordPerfect, a once-dominant, word processing solution that was displaced by Microsoft Word. And Novell has produced a 1994 email from Gates that suggests he wasn't above disadvantaging Novell and WordPerfect at the time.
"Wait until we have a way to do a high level of integration that will be harder for [the] likes of Notes [and] WordPerfect to achieve, and which will give Office a real advantage," Gates wrote in the email to Microsoft developers working on Windows 95. When asked about this exchange later in a deposition, Gates said the request was about innovation, not shutting out competitors. "Is this an important thing?" he asked. "I'm saying it's not."
According to Novell, however, the email suggests that Microsoft delayed the release of Windows 95, at Gates' bidding, in order to harm competitors such as Novell. Microsoft shipped Windows 95 alongside new, 32-bit versions of the Microsoft Office applications in August 1995.
"Novell is confident that after hearing the evidence in this case, the jury will conclude that Microsoft's conduct was anti-competitive, that Microsoft targeted Novell and WordPerfect with this anti-competitive conduct, and that Microsoft's conduct caused substantial damages to the WordPerfect business," said an attorney representing Novell.
Novell is seeking up to $1.2 billion in damages from Microsoft for its actions in the 1990s. The jury trial started this week, and Gates is expected to appear in the days ahead. But Microsoft has said separately that Windows 95 shipped when it was technically ready and that, regardless, the company was under no obligation to ship an OS simply because an application vendor wanted it sooner.
"The law basically doesn't require people to design their products to the whim or demand of other companies," Microsoft attorney Steve Aeschbacher said. "You get to design your own products. There isn't any legal obligation for us to do what they wanted us to do."