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Monday, February 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Jobs getting too big for his breeches?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Watching Steve Jobs is giving me a sense of déjà vu.

The Apple boss is reminding me of the way Bill Gates acted in the late 1990s, before the crash. Gates was on top of the world then. Wall Street adored him; the press called him visionary.

Enemies jabbed at Gates' ankles, but it was hubris that finally got the better of him.

The tide shifted with Gates' petulance during Microsoft's antitrust case. Growing up in View Ridge, he hadn't learned that The Man doesn't like a flip attitude.

Microsoft emerged intact but humbled, with a different culture, a new chief executive and lawyers watching every move.

Gates didn't lose or give up, but the halo faded until he began remaking himself as a philanthropist.

Now Steve Jobs is the one talking back to authorities.

In just over a month, he's been flippant about U.S. trademark protection, accounting standards, securities regulators and European antitrust enforcers.

After ignoring Cisco's trademark on the term "iPhone," Apple called the resulting lawsuit "silly."

Then, Apple said generally accepted accounting principles forced it to charge customers $1.99 for a software upgrade. Accounting standard-setters said that's untrue.

Most galling was how Jobs downplayed federal investigations into how his stock-option dates were changed to increase their value. He told The New York Times "everything is fine" and the coverage has been "kind of ridiculous."

Two days later, The Wall Street Journal had sources (angry Feds?) saying they're still "actively investigating" the backdated options.

Offending U.S. regulators wasn't enough, apparently. Last week, he took aim at European countries looking into whether Apple is breaking their laws by forcing iPod owners to use iTunes.

In a public memo interpreted by his disciples as an inspiring message to the music industry, Jobs laid out his European legal defense.

The memo disputed the allegations, arguing that iPod users get most of their music from sources other than iTunes. Then it reviewed possible outcomes of the scrutiny.

Jobs rejected two options: keeping the status quo and forcing Apple to share its "FairPlay" copy-protection software with others.

He said the best remedy is to have music companies (several European) stop using digital-rights-management (DRM) technology.

"Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free," he wrote.

Who knows what Jobs will do next? Maybe TV ads with a hipster making fun of a Frenchman?

It was a clever way to repurpose legal work. It curried favor with DRM-hating consumers and positioned him as an instigator. But music companies were already thinking about new approaches, such as selling copyable songs in lower fidelity MP3 formats.

Jobs' finagling wouldn't matter if he were just another brash techie. But he's the reigning king of digital entertainment.

Nobody makes a move at music, movie, computer, phone and consumer-electronics companies nowadays without first asking themselves, what would Jobs do?

Let's hope he keeps creating wonderful products. He has made the world and its technology better.

But it may be time for the industry to start thinking about who will be its next leader. It would be nice to find someone whose values can withstand spotlights on the throne, but I'm not holding my breath.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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