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Go Founder Finally Gets Evidence He Needs to Sue Microsoft

Jerrold Kaplan wrote a well-regarded business book, "Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure," about his experience creating and nurturing Go Computer in the late 1980's. And though the entrepreneur had always blamed Microsoft and its illegal business tactics for killing Go, it wasn't until a recent and unrelated court case that Kaplan found the one thing he had needed all along: Evidence. Now, Kaplan is suing the software giant, alleging that Microsoft prevented other companies from working with Go, effectively shutting Go out of the market.

Today, that's a familiar story. But in the early 1990's, information about Microsoft's dubious business practices was still vague and ill-defined. There was still bad blood from Microsoft's wresting of the PC operating system market away from Digital Research in the early 1980's. And of course there were rumors that Microsoft had engineered a certain MS-DOS version to break Lotus' popular 1-2-3 spreadsheet.

Most Microsoft complaints, however, had little to do with technology, and much to do with the way the company did business. The first federal inquiry into Microsoft's business practices started quietly in 1990, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began investigating the way Microsoft sold Windows and other software. That investigation ended in 1993, when FTC commissioners deadlocked 2-2 on a vote to press charges. In that year, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) picked up where the FTC dropped off, however, and eventually secured a settlement from Microsoft in 1994 that ended numerous questionable business practices. Then Netscape and Sun Java entered the picture. The rest, as they say is history.

However, Kaplan's odyssey with Go occurred in the pre-Netscape, pre-Internet world, when Microsoft was still trying to secure Windows as the dominant operating system and Microsoft Office as the de facto standard for productivity software. At the time, companies such as Apple, Lotus, and WordPerfect still provided Microsoft will healthy competition, and if you believe the stories, this is when the software giant started exploring less honest ways of getting ahead.

Go Computer wasn't the first company to market a pen-based tablet computer, but it did offer the most successful design to date at the time, and the company had many supporters. Started in 1987, Go created a GUI-based OS called PenPoint that ran on an Intel 80286-based tablet computer. By the time the first PenPoint systems shipped in 1992, Go had upgraded the systems to an 80386 processor, and later versions used an AT&T processor after AT&T purchased the company.

Reacting to the excitement over Go's PenPoint system, Microsoft suddenly announced that it was working on an update to Windows called Windows for Pen Computing. Based on Windows 3.1 and spearheaded by Jeff Raikes, who now runs Microsoft's Office business, Windows for Pen Computing, like most tablet computer initiatives of the day, found little success. But it was most famous for being vaporware. According to complaints of the day, Microsoft had never even considered a pen-based version of Windows until Go announced its plans.

None of this is particularly nefarious. But evidence in a recent Microsoft legal case--a Minnesota class action suit that arose in the wake of the company's US antitrust case--allegedly proves that Microsoft illegally prodded Go's partners into abandoning the company, Kaplan says, dooming Go to failure. Chief among these partners was Intel Corporation, the microprocessor maker. Intel had planned to endorse Go's technology. But Intel, Kaplan says, decided not to endorse Go after repeated complaints from top Microsoft officials.

"I've made it clear that we view an Intel investment in Go as an anti-Microsoft move," then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates wrote in a message to then Intel CEO Andy Grove. "I am asking you not to make any investment in Go." Kaplan describes Microsoft's efforts to undermine Go as "a corporate mugging" and they certainly appear to be similar to tactics Microsoft used to keep Netscape and Sun Java off of PCs almost a decade later.

Kaplan learned about the evidence involving Go last year when he was subpoenaed in the Minnesota case. In April, he secured the rights to Go Computer--and thus the right to sue on Go's behalf--from AT&T spin-off Lucent Technologies. It should be an interesting case, assuming it ever goes to court. My guess is that Microsoft will settle with Kaplan, as it has so many times in the past.

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