Gates Unhinged

Among the screenplays I probably won’t get around to writing is this one: A team of thieves – Tom Cruise is certainly one of them – breaks into the wonder-of-technology, state-of-wealth home Bill Gates has built on the banks of Lake Washington near Seattle, his sprawling suburban construction meant to rival the great Newport estates and Hudson River mansions of the robber barons.

It’s unclear, as we watch the gymnastics of these cooler-than-cool thieves, who they are – competitors, terrorists, abused business partners, cast-aside girlfriends? (It is also unclear to me exactly how they manage the breach – but having done my own rubbernecking around the Gates palace, I have a few ideas about how to get them over the walls.) Our thieves – along with Cruise, no doubt there’s a nerd, a woman, an African-American, an Asian – are here to steal from the laser-protected nook off the Gates home library his $30 million acquisition, the symbol of not only his colossal wealth but his intent to control the intellectual wherewithal of our time. Yes, our intrepid and gallant thieves deactivate the laser, fool the digital voice-and-fingerprint-recognition locks, drop from the ceiling, and grab the Codex Leicester, Leonardo’s 500-year-old journal about the properties of water and the nature of celestial light.

The Codex, of course, is being stolen not entirely for its own sake (although one of our thieves is in it for the dough he’ll get when the Codex is ransomed back to Gates) but as a symbolic way to strike at the heart of his invincibility and the primacy of technology in American life (this is why I don’t write these screenplays; they always go foreign on me).

My motive (or the motive of my thieves) for stealing the Codex, it occurs to me, is similar to what the jokester in Brussels had in mind when he pied Gates (an event that, at some point, may be remembered as the beginning of the end of the Gates myth).

Another such effort, of course, is now taking place in Federal Court. You can probably even argue that the real motive of the Microsoft prosecution is to provide a symbolic humbling of Gates; it’s only of secondary interest to the powers that be that this humbling will create a whole new business environment.

It’s difficult to get a real sense of the human drama here from just following the press accounts (strangely, the only feel for the tragicomic proportions of the proceedings is in Michael Lewis’s coverage of the trial for the Microsoft-owned online magazine, Slate). But if you place the famously hairsplitting technicalities of antitrust law to one side and see the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as a bureaucratic process for dealing with hubris, the real meaning of the issue for the court to decide is the difference between the ordinary hubris we tolerate in a democratic capitalist system and hubris of a sui generis and historic order.

The fact that there is a trial at all is at least in part the result of Gates’s excessive pride: Any number of half-measures might have mollified Netscape and the government. His refusal to cut any competitor any slack, together with his increasingly explicit strategy to control not just operating systems and applications but, by extension, information, media, commerce, communications … Well, hell, what did he expect? There is a level of size and power and influence that necessarily invites a countervailing weight.

This trial is not, as the Microsoft defense would like to describe it, just a matter of weighing the relative benefits to the consumer of a browser as a stand-alone application or a browser that’s part of the operating system. Instead, it’s a grand, epoch-shaping fork in the road. Gates has really finally done it, in other words. He’s claimed too much. Goaded too many. Bullied too often. Allowed arrogance to interfere with cunning. The sovereign state of Redmond has, one too many times, refused the arms inspectors.

It’s a measure of how far out there Gates has gotten, how isolated, how James Bond-villainesque he’s become, that he, along with the rest of the greater Microsoft community, seems to have little inkling that the world, as Microsoft knows it, is about to end. It is easy to be protected from which way the wind is blowing in hermetically sealed Redmond. “This case will be decided in a courtroom, and if we lose there, we’ll win on appeal,” Gates told a recent intimate gathering in Redmond, with Gotti-like certainty.

Doesn’t he realize that he is the one on trial?

His video deposition – part resentful teenager, part defiant, sleep-deprived political prisoner (it’s unfortunate for Gates that he has Clinton’s video deposition to compete with) – clearly aids the government in its effort to charge him not only with monopolistic practices but with frightening weirdness. Obviously it is not just business for him. He isn’t just a chief executive. He’s the mad genius. Remember Howard Hughes?

The nineties have been the digital decade, with Gates as its John Lennon-size icon. The mania and aspirations of the age have had their highest expression in the fortunes of the West Coast technology community. People there, we believe (and have been repeatedly told) are smarter, righter, richer (their relative sexlessness is a strange aspect of their glamour).

The trial provides some inevitable comeuppance.

No matter the outcome, the proceedings, moving into their fourth week, have already begun to whittle away not only at Gates but at one of the most sustained lovefests in the history of American business. All of the industry’s leaders – executives at Netscape, Apple, AOL, Intel, Intuit, Oracle, Sun, Compaq, HP, etc. – these heroes of the realm, are, each trial day, revealed more and more to be the packaged-goods marketers that they essentially are. Not visionaries but shelf-space soldiers. The Microsoft trial strategy largely consists of the “everybody does it” defense. And everybody does do it: conspire to move whatever merchandise they’re paid to move by screwing the other guy. So instead of being thought of as superintellects and innovators and utopians, these guys, at the end of the nineties, go back to being ordinary salesmen (each more bland or more sharky than the next).

Decades end, not only at their appointed hour but when their dearest myths start to shatter. So the Microsoft trial comes right on time. The possibility of a transmogrified Microsoft – or, in fact, the possibility of the end of Microsoft – works as quite a nice dénouement to the century, as well.

A radically transformed Microsoft would be such a profoundly uncertain and existential development that few people have stepped forward to begin the process of speculating about what, in the event of Microsoft’s losing the case, the world will be like. Even as the trial moves inexorably against Microsoft (that Microsoft will be undone by e-mail is an irony that we should treasure for a bit), the technology community is still in a state of denial. Although Microsoft’s global supremacy is little more than ten years old, anyone who has not wholly succumbed to the Microsoft world order is a relic (a pre-1990 IBM-er, for instance, seems senile). What’s more, even thinking the thought, no less openly creating scenarios, is a fearful gambit for industry movers who’ve grown up in the Microsoft era (“I would love to speculate, but I don’t think my partners would be too happy if I ended up on Bill’s blacklist,” said a venture capitalist of my acquaintance).

But slowly, as the trial drags out, the future starts to take on a distinct form.

Scenario one. The current Microsoft strategy is to keep the discussion focused on whether integration of the browser into the operating system is a detriment or benefit to the consumer. While it is unlikely that the judge will accept this limited version of the issues, if he does focus primarily on the browser aspect of Microsoft’s behavior, then the remedy he might choose is to unhook system and browser. This solution, however, may, in the end, please no one and do little to diminish Microsoft’s ambitions and dominance. In the next chapter, we can look forward to Microsoft becoming the kind of scourge that AT&T, U.S. Steel, and Standard Oil became before their breakups.

Scenario two. Microsoft is broken up. The knee-jerk objections on the part of Microsoft’s defenders and antitrust cognoscenti seem to be that AT&T, U.S. Steel, and Standard Oil were broken up on a largely geographical basis, and how can the court subdivide the Microsoft campus? Breaking up the company thematically rather than geographically could produce an operating-system company, an applications company, an Internet-systems company, and a media company. A breakup consolation prize for Gates: the possibility that he may be able to sell significant parts of his holdings in the largest tax-free event in recorded history.

Scenario three. Release the Windows operating-system source code. In this scenario, applications would remain proprietary, but once they were integrated into the operating system – in the way Explorer has been integrated – they would become part of the published operating system source code. Obviously, the Microsoft argument will be that by turning Windows into something like unix you’ll create the same kind of fractured system. But the counterargument is that opening Windows would cause a dramatic expansion for the software-creation business. Others – whether they’re a hundred hackers collaborating on the Internet or a dozen programmers at Lotus – can alter and improve Windows’ code and compete with Microsoft by releasing better, cheaper, fancier, faster, simpler, whatever versions. Would this kill Bill? What the hell!

Who plays Gates in my film? The role could be played one-dimensionally – from omnipotence to ruin à la the James Bond villains – or, as my thieves toy with him (perhaps cruelly sending him bits of the Codex), you see a man coming to terms with the limits of accomplishment and power. You need someone to project a very particular combination of innocence (the bangs) and anger (watch the eyes and the shaking leg). Otherworldliness too. And the loneliness of eggheadedness. Gates rocks. Not rocks, but rocks – with an inkling of autism (or as though davening in prayer). He is a man ruled by unnatural powers, trying to control his rage, unaware of his own naïveté, projecting a certain transcendence, of course.

Jim Carrey, I’d say (The Windows Guy!): walking up the steps in his huge artificial world, exiting through the set door into real life.


Gates Unhinged