Microsoft has repeatedly surfaced in conspiracy lore, especially with the growth of the Internet. Since its 1975 founding by Harvard dropout Bill Gates and his high-school friend Paul Allen, Microsoft has steadily occupied a larger and larger slice of the software market.
The company’s initial coup came with winning a contract for what eventually became MS-DOS, and then arranging with IBM to keep the rights to the operating system software. The introduction of Microsoft Office and Windows in the early 1990s cemented the company’s dominant industry position.
Soon after September 11, an email circulated alleging that Microsoft had built a secret code into its Microsoft Word Wingdings font, predicting the attacks on the World Trade Center.
When the characters Q33NY—incorrectly alleged to be the flight number of one of the planes—are converted to Wingdings in Microsoft Word, the result is a plane, two symbols supposed to resemble buildings, a skull-and-crossbones, and a Star of David.
A similar rumor had surfaced earlier about the characters NYC, which allegedly had an antisemitic meaning when converted to Wingdings: a skull-and-crossbones, Star of David, and raised thumb.
In both cases, Microsoft had to issue official statements denying the coincidence.
Microsoft has also been the subject of government-spying fears (akin to those surrounding Inslaw’s alleged spy software, PROMIS) in connection with a security key built into its software. In September 1999, Andrew Fernandez, the chief scientist at a Canadian software firm called Cryptonym, announced the existence of an unaccounted-for security key in Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 5, mysteriously labeled “NSAKey.”
Rumors abounded on the Internet as to whether this was something Microsoft had built into Windows security in order to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Windows users. The same rumor resurfaced in 2002, with the release of the company’s Palladium security initiative.
Microsoft has also been the subject of much conspiracy parody, including articles claiming to link it to the Illuminati and numerogical analyses of Gates’s name. In 2002, Los Angeles filmmaker Brian Flemming released Nothing So Strange, a “mockumentary” that investigates a JFK-style conspiracy around the assassination of Bill Gates.
The film alludes to names familiar from the Kennedy assassination, including Alex Hidell (one of Oswald’s aliases) and Debra Meagher (a reference to Sylvia Meagher, an early researcher).
So what makes Microsoft a target for conspiracy theories? First, Gates’s monolithic presence, legendary competitiveness, and paranoia have made him a nationally known figure on the scale of Nelson Rockefeller.
As the Justice Department investigation of Microsoft indicates, it is a large, successful corporation that has not hesitated to use its success to expand its dominance. Within the technology industry, Microsoft has a reputation as a company that steals other companies’ ideas and turns them into mediocre but wildly selling products.
Software companies like Netscape, Norell, WordPerfect, and Lotus have all felt the financial sting of competing with the behemoth based in Redmond, Washington, and new companies know that they have only a small window in which to succeed before Microsoft releases a competing product.
On the flip side, Microsoft itself has made accusations that its Justice Department prosecution results from collaboration between Microsoft’s competitors, including Netscape (now part of AOL/Time Warner), Sun Microsystems, and Oracle Corporation.