Microsoft v. DOJ, 10 years later: Did it make a difference?

Knowing how the subsequent decade turned out, do you think the Justice Department would still have gone after Microsoft in 1998?

Ten years ago today, the United States Department of Justice filed a landmark antirust lawsuit against Microsoft. Six months later, Google incorporated in Menlo Park, Calif.

The proximity of those two dates raises a delicious "what if." Knowing how the subsequent decade turned out, do you think the Justice Department would still have gone after Microsoft in 1998?

Former DOJ antitrust chief Joel Klein CNET News.com

I'm obviously asking a rhetorical question. Short of a H.G. Wells' time machine, Joel Klein and his trustbusters had no way to accurately predict tech's Google-centric future. But given the course of the technology industry in the subsequent decade, it's clear in retrospect how little the court battle mattered.

When the government and 20 states filed their antitrust lawsuit, they charged Microsoft with exerting a ''choke hold'' on rivals while denying consumer choice.

The lawsuit we filed today seeks to put an end to Microsoft's unlawful campaign to eliminate competition, deter innovation, and restrict consumer choice. In essence, what Microsoft has been doing, through a wide variety of illegal business practices, is leveraging its Windows operating system monopoly to force its other software products on consumers."

That reads like a blast from the past. I spent the better part of two years watching lawyers for Microsoft and the trustbusters argue before the bench. Beyond the day-to-day, though, this was fundamentally a debate about the future of the desktop at a time when the Windows operating system was under challenge from the Internet.

Bill Gates and his closest managers truly feared what would happen to Windows if Netscape's browser became the preferred conduit to the Internet. The court ultimately found Microsoft guilty of predatory behavior, but the company avoided potentially crippling, worst-case sanctions.

If they ever sat down for a frank off-the-record conversation, maybe Klein and Gates might agree that their fin de siecle confrontation was less significant than it was cracked up to be. All the while, the bigger challenge to Microsoft was being put together in relative obscurity by a couple of Stanford geeks named Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

So, what do you think?

 

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