Finding the right connection by latching onto Gates' fate.

Position::North Carolina's computer industry - Illustration - Statistical Data Included

How many times on gab TV did you hear the O.J. Simpson courthouse carnival called the trial of the decade, even the century? Sure, it laid bare the grisly cost of a nation's excuse-making obsession with celebrities and athletes. But broader implications? None.

The trial that really matters, the one that could affect millions of households and businesses, is the United States of America vs. Microsoft Corp. On Nov. 5, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled Microsoft a monopoly -- a nasty one. But even before that, the case was sending ripples through the industry.

In June, Garry Norris, Triangle-based sales and marketing project director for IBM Corp.'s networking hardware division, testified about overhearing Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates scream at another IBM executive about IBM's refusal to stop shipping computers with non-Microsoft software.

In March, Jim Goodnight, president and majority owner of Cary-based SAS Institute Inc., the world's largest privately held software company, had grumbled that Microsoft was messing with his business, too. "I think they should slice it horizontally and let the operating system stay intact and that be one company and let the rest be another company," he said on Charlie Rose's PBS television show.

IBM and SAS cozied up to each other, announcing plans in August to open a Cary center where customers could test SAS software on IBM computers. IBM also got cuddly with longtime competitor (and Research Triangle Park neighbor) Cisco Systems Inc., agreeing to sell Cisco the patents to networking technologies that had competed with Cisco's. Cisco then squared off against another RTP denizen, Nortel Networks Corp. In August, Cisco said it was handing over $7.4 billion in stock to buy two companies -- Cerent Corp. in California and Monterey Networks in Texas -- thus becoming a force in fiber optics. That pits Cisco against not only Nortel but Lucent Technologies Inc., which in April announced plans to build a research center at N.C. State's Centennial Campus.

While Norris was grilled in court and Goodnight groused, Durham-based Red Hat Inc. grooved to Microsoft's antitrust blues. In 1999, the company went from anonymity to astronomical -- the biggest market cap in the Triangle. Its strategy: Brand and sell Linux, an operating system for servers that can be downloaded free from the Internet. The media held out Red Hat as the anti-Microsoft. The little company even encourages users to copy its software for...

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