SEATTLE -- A state judge, ruling in a case that exposed the behind-the-scenes animosity between two high-tech titans, said yesterday that a former Microsoft Corp. executive may begin working at Google Inc. in a limited capacity.
Kai-Fu Lee remains barred from doing work on products, services, or projects he worked on at Microsoft, including computer search technology, pending a trial set for January. Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez said a noncompete agreement Lee signed is valid. But Gonzalez said recruiting for and staffing a Google center in China would not violate that agreement. Although Lee cannot set budget or compensation levels or define the research that Google will do in China, Gonzalez said, he can hire people to work there.
Tom Burt, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, said his company also was pleased because Gonzalez's order limits what tasks Lee can perform. Burt notes a Google press release describing Lee's hiring as president of Google's Chinese operations.
''You don't go to be the president of a research center and get paid $10 million to go interview undergraduates," Burt said. ''This makes him the highest-paid human resources director in history."
The trial is expected to more fully determine the rights Lee and the companies have under the noncompete agreement. By the time the trial begins, that restriction will only be in effect for another six months.
Lee, who began working at Microsoft in 2000 and oversaw development of its MSN Internet search technology, including desktop search software rivaling Google's, left in July to lead Google's China expansion. Microsoft sued, contending that Lee's job at Google would violate the noncompete agreement. Microsoft also accused Lee of using insider information to get his job at Google, which responded with its own suit against Microsoft.