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What, me worry? Microsoft's Ballmer stays cool, confident, composed

June 17, 1998
Web posted at: 3:40 p.m. EDT

by Torsten Busse

(IDG) -- REDMOND, WASHINGTON--If Microsoft's number two executive Steve Ballmer is distracted these days it is not because of the antitrust cases the government has filed against his company. It is rather the NBA finals that have taken his mind a little off work, he told reporters last Friday.

Although Microsoft's lawyers and press relations group are a bit busier than usual, Ballmer said he spends his days like he always has: meeting with customers to learn how the company can "delight" them.

Besides, there are bigger threats to Microsoft than the government's antitrust policies. Falling out of touch with what customers want, or losing touch with what technology makes possible, are much bigger threats to Microsoft's long term prosperity.

"At the end of the day, technology is still changing so much [that] if we fall out of touch with what's possible someone else will come along and delight those customers," Ballmer said, speaking to reporters at the company's headquarters here Friday.

Ten days before Windows 98 hits the retail shelves, Microsoft's PR machine has kicked into overdrive. The support group has trained thousands of new engineers, the marketing group is putting the final touches on the product launch events, and the company's developers are already directing their focus to frying even bigger fish--the next version of Windows NT.

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Confident Microsoft Will Prevail

But while Microsoft's top executives are eager to talk business, legal questions and issues still dominate the discussions. The antitrust case will not be lost, case law is on Microsoft's side, the company will not be broken up and Microsoft neither has a "content agenda," nor any plans to rule the Internet, Microsoft's managers say.

Although conceding that in January he worried a bit more about "being sued by his government," Ballmer now says it is pretty much business as usual for the company.

"We are six months smarter," Ballmer said, regarding how his attitude towards the antitrust case has changed. "We have learned what our customers care about is whether the products and services we provide are doing the job for them."

"We are putting our heads down and focusing on what we do best," Ballmer said. "Keep knitting, that is the message. ... Build the right products, support these products incredibly well, recruit the right partners and if you do that the products will come alive."

Why worry about the government? Ballmer wonders.

"We will prevail in court. We had a session and said that to one another. We reminded ourselves how important it is, how we think it is right and now are going back to work," Ballmer said.

The antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. government against Microsoft is based on false premises, and previous case law works overwhelmingly to Microsoft's advantage, one of Microsoft's top lawyers said Friday.

"The rule that emerged from previous cases shows that a company is free to integrate products if the result is a better product," said Bradford Smith, general counsel for Microsoft's international legal department.

Smith also said the Justice Department's case is based on the false assumption that Microsoft decided to integrate its Web browser with Windows to attack Netscape Communications and its Navigator browser. Instead, Microsoft has integrated the browser because "it was a logical step to giving consumers better access to the Internet."

Growing the Business

Speaking of access to the Internet: Is Microsoft attempting to control the entry gateways to the Internet as some in the industry claim, or worse--will the company eventually gain a share of all transactions being conducted on the Internet?

"No, not at all," Ballmer screamed, bolting out of his chair. "It's so crazy. I can't believe that somebody is suggesting we or anybody else could possible have such as plan," Ballmer shouted, his face turning red.

"It's like someone is suggesting sometime down the road anytime you type in a URL into your Web browser Microsoft is charging you a penny. That is crazy."

However, Ballmer conceded, it is no secret that Microsoft is trying to grow its new media business and that it wants to grow the income earned from selling advertisements on its various Web sites, such as its news service MSNBC, its travel services site Expedia, or the "housebuying service."

Housebuying service?

"We haven't announced that one yet, so I just screwed up," Ballmer said embarrassed, declining to expand on the slip of his fast tongue.

What are the chances that the government will break up Microsoft into separate applications and operating system companies?

"No, we won't be broken up," Ballmer said, since that won't be in the interest of Microsoft's customers. "What our customers want are products that work together and the notion we would be disintegrated into a bunch of small companies is not going to make customers feel more comfortable that our products will work together," he said.

Maybe Microsoft's troubles with the government have something to do with the company's hard-charging style, which Ballmer embodies so well?

"You have to tell people to play to win," Ballmer said, adding that people need to be excited and passionate about what they do, one thing Ballmer said hasn't changed in his 18 years with the company.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Ballmer added.

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