RETIRED NAVY Admiral Robert "Willy" Williamson has had a lot of experience with war. He was a soldier in Southeast Asia and a commander in Desert Storm. He was an advisor in Bosnia and an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. Williamson's stellar military credentials recently attracted the attention of one of Seattle's premiere Fortune 500 companies. No, not Pentagon contractor Boeing. Williamson is a brand new employee of one of the military's most promising new partners: Microsoft.

Williamson is head of Microsoft Government, a new division created two months ago by the Redmond giant. The division's roots date all the way back to 1987, when Microsoft, in an effort to expand its market, began courting the Department of Defense (DOD) with desktop software upgrades. Microsoft knew, like its main rivals Oracle and Sun, that the DOD is a lucrative prospect with over 10 million contracts awarded each year and an aging computer infrastructure. Over the years, Microsoft slowly but successfully won small contracts to update the DOD's desktop applications. But now Microsoft wants to be a bigger player, like Boeing or Lockheed Martin, and compete for juicier contracts. Those contracts involve weapons--lots of weapons. Enter the year 2000, where Microsoft has moved from the familiar desktop world that made it famous to a world of military high-tech information systems. "We plan on enhancing the warfare capability of the military [through Microsoft products]," says Williamson.

Indeed, this week Microsoft is expected to announce whether or not the software company and its seasoned defense-contract partner General Dynamics won an $8-$11 billion military contract. The award is for a new information network to wire the entire Navy and Marine Corps. The eight-year project will "essentially tie together all the ships, planes, soldiers, you name it," says Williamson, who spoke to The Stranger from his D.C. office. Most of the military still runs its information structure through a variety of different computers and systems. The goal of the Navy/Marine Corps project is to essentially consolidate everything into one uniform system: Microsoft's.

Last month, Microsoft won a military contract with General Dynamics. The $91 million project, called the Area Air Defense Commander Capability program, is a Windows-supported system that makes automated tactical recommendations to commanders. According to Scott Sears, vice president of defense programs for General Dynamics, the computer "essentially looks at all the weapons at our disposal, and using past performance data, gives an opinion." In addition, Microsoft, with new partners Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Newport News Shipbuilding, won a $5 billion contract in July to design and build the Navy's next-generation nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Microsoft's recent success in the defense biz can be attributed to lessons the software company has learned from other defense contractors. Lesson one, hire former military guys (like Williamson) who have enormous experience and will be able to exploit their military contacts. And lesson two, lobby the hell out of the government. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Microsoft's campaign contributions to elected officials--zero in 1990--are already at $3 million in 2000, making them the largest computer-industry donor. (The increase can be partially attributed to the antitrust matter.) Microsoft is outspending its closest competitor in the military computer market, Oracle, by five times. In addition, Microsoft's main business partners, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin (who've spent $996,307 and $1,560,508, respectively) are--not surprisingly--the top contributors to the House Committee of Armed Services.

By entering into the defense-contract business, Microsoft is attempting to expand the company's role in the future. "It's a new business for us, and we see it as a growth opportunity," says Microsoft spokesperson Keith Hodson. Traditionally, the military business has met with mixed emotions from the public. In the '80s, a seven-year consumer-led boycott of General Electric, traditionally a household electronics company, forced the company to cut back its new nuclear weapons involvement. The analogy between Microsoft and General Electric is important, because both companies started out as consumer-oriented firms before expanding their services to the military. Hodson says Microsoft isn't concerned with public backlash. "We support a vibrant industry that defends the country," he says.

Meanwhile, Williamson is getting used to his new job at Microsoft. He understands the software giant and the armed services. He knows that the military is becoming increasingly reliant on high technology, and it's a market he intends to help Microsoft break. "We are very much involved in other areas that I can't comment on right now. But you can expect to see us more in the military, space, and intelligence communities in the future," he says.

pat@thestranger.com