When he was the victim of a custard pie attack, the world sniggered; when he gives millions to kick-start schools' access to the internet, the news is met with cynical comments. And when the judge announced his findings of fact against his company, millions for whom the complexities of antitrust law mean nothing, cheered.
The biggest global business story of the final year of the century is personal. It's the Rule of Law v Bill Gates. Such personal animosity is odd. Gates is a very sharp businessman and his company has certainly sailed near the edge of business ethics, but his sharp practice has certainly been no worse than the dirty tricks of other multinational giants. But Microsoft and Gates epitomise something about where our world is going – the darker, powerful side of the information revolution.
At the start of the century another trust case was presented as the rule of law against an individual. Standard Oil, personalised as John D Rockefeller, was paraded as all that was wrong with US capitalism, while Rockefeller, like Gates, claimed that what was good for his company was good for the US.
The parallels are interesting but the differences are key. As our analysis shows, Microsoft's legal battles are complex and multinational. The company is fighting in the US courts against an army of attorney-generals and is set to face attacks on other fronts, notably from the EC and individual European countries. The company's in-house counsel and their external advisers face legal complexities and fees that Rockefeller and his lawyers would never have believed possible.
As in-house counsel from leading companies gather for Legal Monte Carlo 99, their role is changing. Not all of them are involved in work on the scale of Bill Neukom and his colleagues, but all know that their role and their relationship with firms are going through a period of massive change as they work across legal jurisdictions, cultures and political and economic structures.