Microsoft has been ordered by a federal judge tto make Chairman Bill Gates and 16 other high-level officials available for depositions by government trust busters -- and to turn over source code for versions of the company's market-dominant operating systems, Windows 95 and 98.
At the same time as being handed minor blows, the software giant turned around and, bolstered by a recent Court of Appeals ruling, said it would seek a summary dismissal of the case before trial starts September 8. Prosecutors labeled the move as "predictable."
The court hearing this week came as evidence gathering in the case is in full gear. The top brass of Microsoft's chief rival, Netscape Communications Corp., have been deposed, as have government expert witnesses. But Microsoft had sought to limit the pre-trial testimony of Gates to eight hours, while prosecutors sought his cooperation over two days.
"I do not intend to place a time restraint on the length of time Mr. Gates may be deposed," U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled from the bench. "I'm well aware that depositions can be abused by both the interrogators and the deponents and am determined that no such abuse will occur in this case."
Lawyers involved with the case said arrangements have been made for Gates to be deposed Aug. 12 in Seattle, although the judge had offered the use of his courtroom, which is in the same courthouse where Kenneth Starr's Whitewater grand jury meets and where Monica Lewinsky testified this week.
The case against Microsoft is high drama in its own right. In May, the U.S. Justice Department and 20 states Attorneys General filed a sweeping antitrust suit against the company, accusing officials of trying to illegally maintain its monopoly in personal computer operating systems and parlay that advantage to gain monopoly status in other markets, foremost the Internet browser market.
In the courtroom today, Microsoft's legal team notified Jackson that it would seek the dismissal of the entire case in a motion the company intends to file Monday. A company spokesman said outside the courtroom that the company plans to argue for the dismissal on several points, including that Netscape was never prevented from scoring distribution outlets for its browser and that Microsoft never illegally "tied" the success of its browser to its operating system.
"We believe the facts are on our side," said William Neukom, Microsoft's vice president for legal affairs. "We're prepared to go to trial if need be."
Stephen Houck, the chief antitrust lawyer representing the states Attorneys General, said that such a move was routine but that it is seldom granted in antitrust cases.
Justice department outside counsel David Boies said winning the right to access Microsoft's source code for versions of Windows was an important victory because "Microsoft has said the source code and notes taken during the writing of the code will reveal what was done and why it was done."