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Divide widens in Microsoft debate

Move over, General Motors. Bill Gates says what's good for Microsoft is good for America.

In a pro-Microsoft event laced with patriotic superlatives, the softwaremaker's chairman argued Tuesday that any attempt to block the mid-May release of its new Windows 98 software would hurt "the most vibrant industry in the economy."

"It would be like telling GM they cannot come out with any new cars this fall," Gates told reporters amid speeches from fellow high-tech leaders and a demonstration of Windows 98's features. "No industry is doing more to move America forward."

The splashy event orchestrated by Microsoft was part of a last-ditch effort to sway antitrust officials from taking action that would delay the software's release. More than 50 representatives of the computer industry showed up, including the heads of Compaq, the largest personal computermaker, and CompUSA, the biggest chain of computer stores.

But the event in some ways gave Microsoft's critics more ammunition to argue that the company's dominance in the technology industry has grown too great.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and held hearings earlier this year into Microsoft's business practices, accused the Redmond, Wash., company of twisting executives' arms.

"I cannot help but wonder how many of these executives are on that stage because they truly want to be," Hatch said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "It strikes me as curious that it was only after calls from Microsoft that many of these individuals saw fit to sign letters and make public appearances."

The event widened the fault lines in the debate over what action, if any, should be taken against the world's largest maker of personal computer software.

About a dozen states are expected to decide by mid-May whether to take action separate from the Justice Department, which has accused Microsoft of using its dominance as a maker of operating software to illegally shut out rivals. Microsoft wants to keep integrating new features into its software, such as the Internet browser it plans to weave into Windows 98.

Microsoft foes, including software makers Oracle and Netscape, contend the company is vastly overstating the economic impact of any delay. Consumers aren't clamoring for the software update, they say, and only a handful of high-tech companies such as makers of game joysticks likely will suffer.

"This is really amazing. They're likening a delay in Windows 98 to something like a meteor hitting the Earth and wiping out the dinosaurs," said Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, a staunch Microsoft foe who also was in New York.

Economists and industry analysts have said that any pain from a delay in introduction of Microsoft's new software is likely to be limited to a slight temporary falloff in PC sales.

Opinion is mixed among computer users. Nearly two-thirds of corporate technology managers don't think Microsoft has an illegal monopoly that stifles innovation, according to a survey by CIO magazine, a trade publication.

But a third of the 800 executives polled said the government should bring a broader antitrust action against Microsoft.