Microsoft came under fierce attack from consumer activists and lawyers on the opening day of a Washington conference set up to examine its business ethics, but which the software supplier has boycotted as a ?kangaroo court?.
The ?Appraising Microsoft? conference is the brainchild of US consumer advocate Ralph Nader and is intended to provide a public forum to put the supplier?s alleged anti-competitive practices under the spotlight. This comes at a time when the US Justice Department and four state attorney generals are doing exactly the same thing. Nader said he had organised the event as a result of his concern for what he sees as Microsoft?s damaging impact on the US economy and its stifling of technological innovation.
Microsoft was invited to attend the conference, but in a letter sent to Nader on Thursday the company?s chief operating officer Bob Herbold said that was like being invited to walk "into an ambush with sharpshooters on every hilltop". He stormed: "This conference makes me wonder whether your speakers travelled by Quantas because it has all the hallmarks of a kangaroo court."
Herbold?s remarks related to a list of speakers invited to present their views at the conference. They include well known anti-Microsoft figures such as Netscape general counsel Roberta Katz, attorney Gary Reback and Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy, whose attacks on Microsoft have become a seemingly essential part of any public address he makes.
The letter claims that Nader had rejected Microsoft?s suggestions for "respected industry participants" who would present "a balanced view". Nader was also slammed for charging a conference attendance fee of $1,000 and the lavish advertising that had trailed the event.
"It?s curious that the conference was advertised in full page national newspaper ads costing upwards of $50,000 a piece," he wrote. "How is it that a non profit organisation like yours can find the money to finance such expensive advertising and marketing efforts on behalf of companies that compete with Microsoft?"
"As a consumer advocate," he told Nader, "you should want to support a market defined by strong competition that results in continually improving product quality and declining prices...there are 7,500 commercial software developers in the US alone and more than four million developers worldwide for Windows. Hardly an industry on its knees."
Nader hit back at Microsoft?s chief executive Bill Gates and his right hand man Steve Ballmer for not attending the conference. "What are they so afraid of?" he demanded. "I don?t understand why they are not here to engage in an open debate."
He was supported by Mitch Kertzman, chief executive of relational database firm Sybase, who agreed: "If Microsoft would try harder to participate in open debates, things would go better for them in terms of the public?s opinion about them. But to continue to attack their critics is only going to work against them."
But he did not comment on Nader?s criticism of US vice president Al Gore, who has visited Gates at his home in Seattle and was invited to the conference. "He couldn?t even walk three blocks over here to talk publicly although he found the time to fly 3,000 miles [to Gates house] to speak privately there."
Herbold?s fears would appear to have been well founded however given the stridently anti-Microsoft tone of speakers on the first day with Sun?s McNealy denying that his rhetoric was fuelled by jealous. "I don?t want to be Bill Gates," he insisted. "Besides, it rains all the time in Seattle."
McNealy positioned himself as head of the only hardware company ready to hold out against Microsoft, pointing out that he was the only CEO at the conference. "That?s because all the others are reselling Microsoft?s products," he claimed. "If I was them I would not show up today either because it might only serve to be bad for my shareholders."
But the bitterest attack came from attorney Gary Reback, a long time and vociferous critic of Microsoft, who insisted that the company?s near-monopolistic hold on the market was detrimental. "Buying an operating system today is like walking into a shoe store and being told that there is not only one style of shoe, but that it only comes in one color and one size."
"I believe that Microsoft will use control of the Windows standard to lock content providers into a similar biased standard," he added. "In the near future the producers of 'Seinfeld' or 'ER' are going to broadcast a stream of audio and video in a format owned and controlled by Microsoft."
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