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Microsoft's Ballmer Confident of No Break-Up

By Scott Hillis (Reuters)

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp. (NasdaqNM:MSFT - news) Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said on Tuesday that he was extremely bullish about the software giant's future and was confident the company would avoid being broken up in the U.S. government's antitrust case against it.

Ballmer, writing in an e-mail obtained by Reuters and speaking in a telephone interview, repeated his stance that nothing in the case, brought by the Justice Department and 19 states, justified breaking Microsoft into several companies.

``We believe in the strength of our legal position, we will appeal Judge Jackson's conclusions, and we continue to believe absolutely that our position will be vindicated in the end,'' Ballmer told Reuters in an interview.
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Microsoft was found guilty of breaking antitrust law earlier this month by District Court Thomas Penfield Jackson, and sources in Washington say the Justice Department will advocate splitting up the company along product lines when it formally files its proposed penalty sometime this week.

The legal woes, combined with investor concerns over the company's financial future amid a lackluster outlook for the coming months, drove the stock down 16 percent on Monday to a 52-week low of 66 5/8.

The shares, which have fallen from a 52-week high of nearly 120, rebounded about 4 percent on Tuesday, gaining 2 7/16 to 69 1/16 in early afternoon on the Nasdaq.

Break-Up Said 'Extreme And Unprecedented'

In the e-mail, which was sent to Microsoft employees on Monday morning, Ballmer used even stronger language to voice his optimism about the company's future in both the marketplace and in the courtroom.

``This company, which has done so many great things for consumers and the American economy over the last 25 years, will not be broken up,'' Ballmer wrote in the e-mail obtained by Reuters. ``No matter what the newspaper headlines say, absolutely nothing in the current case justifies breaking us up.''

``Even if the judge were to agree to such an extreme and unprecedented action, the legal process has many more steps remaining,'' Ballmer wrote. ``We have won at the Court of Appeals before, and (Chairman) Bill (Gates) and I are confident in our legal position as we move forward.'' In Washington, Justice officials briefed President Clinton's economic staff on its proposal to break up Microsoft, but Ballmer said he did not know the details of that meeting. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters shortly after 1 p.m. that the meeting had begun, but said he would not provide a report on it afterward. Joel Klein, who heads the Justice Department's antitrust division, and other department officials left after the meeting ended without talking to reporters.

Ballmer Bullish On Future

On the financial front, Ballmer said Microsoft's new line-up of products, such as its Windows 2000 operating system for corporate networks and handheld devices like its Pocket PC, meant the company had a bright future.

Despite a 23 percent rise in third-quarter profits it posted on Thursday, Microsoft's revenues were smaller than some had expected, and the company gave ultra-cautious guidance for its future performance, citing slow growth in the personal computer market.

Asked in the interview about Wall Street's reaction to the company's earnings, Ballmer laughed and said he had given up trying to figure out the stock market.

``Our business is the same, we have the same opportunities , the same ability to do great work, that we had a month ago ... nothing's changed,'' he said.

Ballmer also addressed the financial concerns in the e-mail, writing that Microsoft's business was strong, although the sheer size of the company meant revenues would not grow as fast as before.

``I am extremely bullish about Microsoft's future. Microsoft was born a competitor and we will continue to compete as we always have -- fairly and vigorously,'' Ballmer wrote.

``It's hard to grow already large revenues at a high rate, and the first quarter slowdown in business PCs made us a little cautious,'' Ballmer wrote.

New Stock Options

Acknowledging that he wanted to put to rest any employee concerns over their own financial futures amid the share price volatility, Ballmer also announced that all employees would be given new stock options priced at Monday's closing price.

Employees, many of whom have been transformed into millionaires by such stock plans, would receive an option grant the same size as what they received under a grant last July, Ballmer said.

The move came amid speculation among some analysts that Microsoft would reprise earlier stock options, which may have been set at a much higher price, thereby cutting their potential value in light of the recent drop in share price.

Ballmer also said Microsoft would expand a program to reward star employees with option grants that would be ``very significant'' relative to annual option packages.

``We want to make sure they have opportunities for career advancement, that they have a good financial deal here and can see some financial upside,'' Ballmer said. ``We didn't want employees wasting time worrying about this issue. We want to preempt the issue.''

Once the government files its proposed remedies, due Friday, Microsoft will have until May 10 to reply with its objections, its own proposed remedy and its suggestions for the process during the remainder of the trial. The government will file once more on May 17.

Jackson will hear oral arguments on a penalty on May 24.

 

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