Microsoft monopoly muddle: no winner or loser

A prediction: there will be no winner or loser in the contest between Microsoft and the US Department of Justice, only a complex, often acrimonious struggle for a compromise that likely will benefit us all. Here's how I see it:

Half of US Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein's position is simple. He believes Microsoft has a monopoly in PC operating systems, and he knows there is a long legal history supporting the view that monopolists are subject to different rules and tougher standards than the average company.

However, deciding how to apply that thinking is another matter altogether. Anticompetitive behaviour is a lot like pornography. Most people think they know pornography when they see it, but trying to define it into law often proves impossible. Consequently, today's US antitrust laws are highly ambiguous and sometimes leave Microsoft in the unenviable position of not knowing whether a particular action, deal or decision will be deemed legal.

Author Ayn Rand had it right in 1962 when she described the plight of the businessman as follows: "If he charges prices which some bureaucrats judge as too high, he can be prosecuted for monopoly - if he charges prices lower than those of his competitors, he can be prosecuted for unfair competition - and if he charges the same price, he can be prosecuted for collusion or conspiracy." In that environment, Klein's logic will inevitably sound fuzzy, but it will benefit from the powerful rhetoric of fairness.

In sharp contrast, Microsoft will point to such operating systems as Mac OS, OS/2, Unix and Linux as evidence that the company isn't a monopoly and therefore it should be treated like any other firm. From that position, Microsoft's lawyers will be able to show that no matter what the Justice Department might accuse the company of, other IT companies are doing virtually identical things.

But the "we're just like everybody else" defense also has its problems. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Microsoft has 95 per cent of the PC operating system business. But perhaps more important, America's instinctive distrust of Things Big will make it highly sceptical of Microsoft's power. Indeed, the very idea of US antitrust law emerged out of the checks and balances deeply ingrained in American culture. Consequently, to many people, Microsoft's arguments will sound clear but unacceptably Darwinian.

So fuzzy and fair are being pitted against clear and Darwinian. Given the choice, society would like its laws clear and its markets fair. Unfortunately, as noted, in the world of antitrust, that option doesn't exist. That's why the process almost certainly will be a muddle: a bit fuzzy, a bit clear, a bit fair, a bit Darwinian.

We've seen that pattern before. The US government always had a hard time explaining what exactly it wanted to do about IBM. But somehow - between the 1952 consent decree that barred IBM from the service bureau business, government jawboning that encouraged IBM to unbundle its software and endless suits and settlements that helped make it possible for competitors to build IBM-compatible processor, disk and tape equipment - a more level playing field was eventually built.

Odds are that a similar path awaits Microsoft. Don't expect any watershed decisions, just a steady series of agreements and pressures that restrain Microsoft's power without fundamentally hindering its ability to innovate and compete.

It won't be pretty, but history suggests that the results will benefit us all.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

David Moschella

PC World
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?