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Size, Success Put Microsoft In Cross Hairs Company Is An Easy Target, Says No. 2 Exec

Bill Gates’ right-hand man likens Microsoft Corp. to the biggest kid in the school. He doesn’t misbehave, but everyone keeps picking on him.

“The teacher is saying, ‘Johnny, you are three times bigger than anybody else in this class. I’m watching - because if you even fall down, let alone beat some other kid up, you’re gonna hurt him,”’ head marketer Steve Ballmer said Thursday.

Microsoft, he conceded, is big. It’s successful, eagerly competitive and frequently has monopoly regulators looking over its shoulder. But Ballmer insisted that the company hasn’t done anything wrong.

“Johnny hasn’t been a bad kid,” he told a Silicon Valley breakfast where panelists asked why so many people seem to dislike Microsoft, especially in the cradle of high-tech industry.

Ballmer spoke two days after Silicon Valley-based Sun Microsystems Inc., one of Microsoft’s fiercest and most outspoken rivals, took the companies’ dispute over the Java programming language to court.

Sun developed Java with the aim of enabling developers to write software that works on different kinds of computers. That’s a challenge to Microsoft, which produces the Windows operating system that runs 80 percent of all personal computers.

The federal lawsuit claims Microsoft, breached its contract with Sun by changing Java in its latest Web browser so that it works only with PCs running Windows. Microsoft issued a statement calling Sun’s claims “outrageous” and “completely unfounded.”

Ballmer, in the first public comment by a Microsoft official on the suit, repeated the company’s assertion that it had “scrupulously” followed its agreement with Sun. Microsoft, he said, is simply ensuring that Java works well with Windows.

“We feel … we have lived by both the spirit and letter of the contract, and as this thing goes to court that will bear out,” Ballmer said.

Ballmer, Microsoft’s vice president in charge of worldwide sales and marketing, is the No. 2 executive at the world’s largest independent software company. His exuberance, quick wit and ready humor contrast sharply with Chairman Bill Gates’ lower-key, more serious manner.

Ballmer shook his head in mock despair when a reporter described Microsoft as a de facto monopoly and said many competitors and computer users consider it “evil.”

But he clearly was disturbed by that perception, especially in Silicon Valley, where the Redmond, Wash., company has dealings with scores of companies.

“All I can really say … is we’re going to reach out, we’re going to continue to work hard, earn people’s respect as partners, and keep doing what we do best.”

Microsoft’s size and success do raise eyebrows, Ballmer said. “Smart and good and crafty” competitors have found scrutiny of Microsoft good publicity for them. From there, suspicions about the company snowballed.

“We need to make sure we’re always behaving ethically and legally correctly. We feel very good about that,” he said.

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