Consumer Activist Ralph Nader Takes on Microsoft

The well-known U.S. consumer advocate Ralph Nader is taking on Microsoft Corp. and has challenged company CEO Bill Gates to speak at a two-day conference in November which has an agenda that is decidedly anti-Microsoft. Nader first rose to prominence when he tackled automaker General Motors Corp., the industrial icon of a previous American generation. Today, he used one of his Web sites to announce the Washington, D.C., conference, 'Appraising Microsoft and its Global Strategy' and also released a letter he wrote to Gates last week.

The well-known U.S. consumer advocate Ralph Nader is taking on Microsoft Corp. and has challenged company CEO Bill Gates to speak at a two-day conference in November which has an agenda that is decidedly anti-Microsoft.

Nader first rose to prominence when he tackled automaker General Motors Corp., the industrial icon of a previous American generation. Today, he used one of his Web sites to announce the Washington, D.C., conference, "Appraising Microsoft and its Global Strategy" and also released a letter he wrote to Gates last week.

The conference will be on Nov. 13 and 14 and, according to the Web site, will include Scott McNealy, CEO of Microsoft mega-rival Sun Microsystems Inc., and attorney Gary Reback, who has taken on Microsoft on behalf of Netscape Communications Corp. and others.

"Recently, people in many different kinds of businesses have been expressing fear and criticism about your company's business practices and strategies," Nader wrote to Gates. "At first, we were prone to dismissing such complaints as reflecting envy toward the dominant company."

Microsoft might not have warranted Nader's scrutiny were it not for the fear of retaliation that many say they have when it comes to challenging Gates' corporate monolith.

"Self-censorship brought on by the detailed fear of Microsoft retaliation -- itself seen as a many-pronged cluster -- is not healthy in any economy. Especially when this fear is not imagined but rooted in past and current actions which are described and attributed to your company's high velocity momentum," said the two-page letter.

"Seasoned executives are quaking before the relentless Microsoft wave in such lines of commerce as banking, real estate, insurance, car dealers, travel services, cable television, newspaper, media and entertainment," it goes on.

The letter opens by saying that the typical response to the missive might be one of "prejudgment and denial," but then urges Gates' participation in the conference based on the desire expressed in his book, "The Road Ahead," to open dialogue regarding the changes being brought about by technology.

A call to Microsoft requesting comment was not returned.

An industry analyst said that the Nader-led inquiry is likely to be taken seriously by Microsoft, which has been the target of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into its business activities.

"I think Microsoft takes assertions that it's got a monopoly position and should be regulated very seriously," said Dave Vellante of International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Nader, who also was the Green Party's 1996 U.S. presidential candidate, is well known to consumers and his interest in Microsoft might draw their interest, Vellante agreed.

Nader's involvement also could deflect some of the cynicism leveled at previous Microsoft critics.

"The interesting thing to me is that the people who have cried foul are the Scott McNealys and the Larry Ellisons of the world who in many respects are people in the computer industry," Vellante said, referring to the CEOs of Sun Microsystems and Oracle Corp.

"You have to laugh a little bit that it's people in the computer industry who are crying foul when they blew so many chances to be more competitive," he said.

Moreover, "the computer industry's history is fundamentally defined by de facto monopolies," Vellante said. "First, it was IBM. Now, it's the combination of Intel and Microsoft."

It's likely that everyone involved in Nader's conference, including Nader himself, has an agenda at work, Vellante said, adding that inviting people like McNealy and Reback is "like asking someone who's freezing if they want a blanket."

The stated conference agenda, available on the Web site of Essential Information, one of Nader's various organizations, includes the Microsoft vs. Java debate and topics such as "Consumers Unite: You have nothing to lose but your blues" and "No one should own the alphabet."

Information about the conference, to which Vice President Al Gore also has been invited, can be found on the Internet at http://www.essential.org/appraising/microsoft/.

Ralph Nader's Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy organizations can be reached at +1-202-387-8030. Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at +1-206-882-8080 or http://www.microsoft.com/.

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