I do not work for MSFT (nor am I currently a direct shareholder, though funds I own probably are) - and I do have the luxury of owning my own firms - that said, I think that large, multinational corporations, especially market leaders of the size and importance of Microsoft are exactly those firms which should not (and I hope will not) be neutral about social issues as well as business issues.
Discrimination and as importantly the growing influence of religious groups are issues which major corporations should take a stand on. There will be some corporations (unfortunately in my opinion) who take a stand in favor of religious influence - if they do this at least in public then I can choose not to invest in, work for/with, or otherwise support them. Likewise, there will be, I hope, some corporations, and I would like to see Microsoft as one, who are active in resisting religious influence and actively supporting anti-discrimination efforts, such as the bill in question.
Why does this matter?
Well, in a global marketplace any large firm, such as Microsoft, employs many people - and will seek to hire and employ many more, who are not Christians, who are not supporters of the religious right. From employees in India to many here in the US a move such as this current position of suddenly being "neutral" can and possibly will be seen as bowing into preassure from Christian religious right groups - and while some of those employees may or may not personally support the bill in question, they will (as I do) wonder what Microsoft will do next? What other bills and issues will Microsoft decide to remain "neutral" on? Will any of them be bills in which the discrimination in question is not against gays but against immigrants? Against non-Christians?
Consider as well Microsoft's marketing messages - if they are a company which intends to provide the tools and systems which will let anyone be anything they dream of (seemingly the message from many of their current TV ads) then perhaps it would be wise to not be seen as being neutral when there is a chance to help pass a bill that would assist many whose dreams and aspirations are denied to them in countless small (and in many major) ways.
I'm straight (and male) - but I have many friends of both genders who have non-mainstream sexualities, gay, bi, etc - and as they (and I) age, form families, have children etc - I want them to have all the same rights available to me, even more so for those who, unlike me at the moment, enter into formal relationships (i.e. marriage) - I certainly don't want them to be denied visitations rights, health benefits, etc.
We (my girlfriend and I) recently considered the possibility of working in England, as part of that process we looked into how I might obtain a work visa should her company transfer her to their London office. In researching it we found that the criteria was simply for us to be able to prove that we were in a longterm relationship - there wasn't anything in the criteria that required anything about gender - just that we had cohabitated for a fixed period of time and could prove that and attest to it (I think the period of time is two years), the transfer didn't go through but we both found the overall impression and the nature of the policy very openminded.
As a result, my opinion of the UK, already good, has risen by more than a bit - for an often conservative country, a very sensible policy which also does not discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender - is very refreshing.
So just a few thoughts - my view, as someone who might consider working for Microsoft at some point in time, and certainly as a technologist will have to engage with Microsoft on many levels in the future, I would prefer to work with (or for) a company which was not neutral, especially if it is the case as Steve's letter seems to state that he and Bill Gates are personally in favor of the bill - while yes, Microsoft is certainly not a "family" company where the whims/views of a single family or a single founder should hold sway - neither is Microsoft the same as older, less personally established firms - Bill Gates clearly "is" Microsoft in a very fundemental way - and I think it behoves him and Microsoft to avoid situations where they act at cross purposes.
It amazes me how someone intelligent as yourself can perceive a multinational corporation should enter into the political fray for the interest of a small but very vocal lobby group. Perhaps MS should use some of their cash/assets to design/program more advanced programs, etc as their market share is constantly shrinking because other corporations care more about what consumers want ... computer programs that doesn't experience a glitch every 25 minutes. MS is a business ... let MS do business not influence politics.
Roland, I'm going to leave you comments here, but I disagree very stongly with all of them.
Corporations are made up of many humans - but have the unique capacity to (in some cases) be very long lasting and by wielding the impact of their customers, employees, and other stakeholders have a great deal of potential influence. If corporations did not use this influence to promote the values they, as a corporation have declared they believe in, I find this very disappointing.
Futther, MSFT has and does invest billions (more than nearly any other corporation in fact) into R&D. YOu can, and I have, argue from time to time about the results - but you can't claim they are not investing into new product development.
But without the best people, without employees who are living in communities where they feel welcome, Microsoft will not have a chance to generate a return on that investment - nor will Microsoft's R&D itself likely be very successful - if their employees leave and/or are very distracted by external matters.
This is why corporations pay benefits, extend those benefits to employee's families etc. But in the case of gay employees there are many situtations where gay employees face a very different society than non-gay - from visitation rights in hospitals, adoption, survivor rights, even fair housing laws - all big and small places where gay people - or anyone perceived as being gay - can and do face discrimination.
I am not gay, but I believe very strongly in non-discrimination policies - I will make a choice not to live in states and areas where discrimination is legal - not because of personal impact to me, but because what it says about that state (or other region) is that discrimination is encouraged - that some people - though also citizens, tax payers and law abiding will and can face discrimination because of a very personal choice of who to love, of who to partner with, of how to identify themselves publically and privately.
All businesses will in many small and many large ways influence politics - the question is around what issues they will use this influence.
If anything I would argue that tech companies in general, and Microsoft in specifics, have not done enough to influence politics at the local, federal or international level.
Corporations large and small are a vital and core part of the global community. They should be encouraged to use that influence.
I would argue that they should be transparent in that use and consistent. They should build on what they hold internally and expand on that externally. Corporations are only as good as the people who make up the corporation - the employees whom they wish to hire and retain are ones who usually have a choice. Environments which grow hostile to them, to their friends, to their loved ones are not environments conducive to retaining (or attracting) people.
Microsoft should and is entering the political fray as you phrase it on the behalf of Microsoft and their 1000's of employees, those employees partners, children, families and friends as well as the millions (perhapd billions) of customers of Microsoft.