April 30, 1999
Almost a Microsoft Witness, but Definitely a Hot Potato
By STEVE LOHR
He was personally asked to be a witness in the Microsoft antitrust
trial by the software giant's chairman, William H. Gates, but he was
quickly dropped from the company's witness list after he was
questioned by a Government lawyer last fall.
Yet judging from his deposition testimony released this week, Michael
L. Dertouzos had a lot to say -- and he would have been a most
unusual witness, blunt and direct, with views not tailored to either
The 62-year-old director of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology's laboratory for computer science at first refused to be a
witness for Microsoft when the company's lawyers reached him. But
last July, Dertouzos said, Gates called him and he agreed to testify
but only on one narrow issue: that in the interests of simplicity,
the distinction between the Internet browser and the operating system
would become "increasingly blurred in the future."
Coming from a leading computer scientist, this was music to the ears
of the Microsoft legal team. It seemed to echo a central defense
argument -- namely, that Microsoft's Windows operating system and its
Internet Explorer browser are one seamlessly integrated product and
not two products bundled together to stifle competition.
Yet as his deposition testimony makes clear, Dertouzos did not have a
legal agenda in mind. In his books and speeches, he has advocated the
need to simplify the use of computers if information technology is to
truly pay off, making the economy more productive and people's lives
To do that, he explained, a person ought to be able to easily
retrieve information from a desktop PC or from some distant place
through the Internet by using a few simple commands -- "a steering
wheel, a gas pedal and a brake, so to speak."
Besides speaking his mind on only one issue, Dertouzos informed
Microsoft that he would be an unusual witness in other respects as
well. He would take no pay, whereas fees of more than $1,000 an hour
are common for expert trial witnesses.
Most witnesses at the Microsoft trial prepared for days or weeks,
reviewing documents and being coached by lawyers, but not Dertouzos.
"I would like to behave and be treated as a judge's witness rather
than as Microsoft's witness in the European tradition of being
neutral," he said. "And I did not want to be prepared in any way by
He was willing to be a trial witness despite what would inevitably be
questioned as a possible conflict of interest. He told the Justice
Department lawyer at his deposition that nearly a year earlier, in
November 1997, Gates had pledged to donate $20 million to M.I.T. to
build a new computer science building.
The news of the Gates donation, which was publicly announced only a
few weeks ago, would certainly have been used at the trial by the
Justice Department lawyers to question Dertouzos's independence.
But the computer scientist answered any doubts about his independence
as his testimony proceeded. He volunteered that he and Gates see the
future of the information age differently. A key disagreement between
the two men, Dertouzos said, was "my statement that the new world of
information, if left to its own devices, would increase the gap
between rich and poor." He added, "Gates felt it would shrink it."
When asked whether the browser was now considered part of the
operating system or a separate application, Dertouzos replied,
"Historically and today, it is the case that browsers are treated as
With that, the hopes of the Microsoft legal team fell, as did
Dertouzos's value as a defense witness. Legal cases tend to be
decided by facts, rooted in the here and now. No matter what
Dertouzos may think about the future course of computing, he said
that the browser was currently treated as a separate product, as the
Justice Department contends, and not part of the operating system.
That single quotation from the Dertouzos deposition was featured in
the Microsoft trial and presented as evidence by the Government.
Go a little further into his testimony, though, and Dertouzos
emphasizes the difficulty of drawing clean dividing lines, given the
malleability of software, rendered in the digital code of 1's and
0's. His goal of simplicity, he testified, could be accomplished in
many ways -- giving the operating system the functionality of a
browser, giving a browser the functionality of an operating system,
or placing most of these capabilities centrally in a network, which
can be tapped into with simple Internet devices.
"There are a lot of possibilities there," he said. "Software design
is still an extremely primitive activity based primarily on art and
craft. So depending on the designer's inspiration, mind-set and
approach, one of these approaches might turn out to be best."