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Microsoft crippled by its antitrust past

Redmond's antitrust settlements seem to have constrained the software maker's willingness and ability to compete, and we're all the poorer for that.

Once a monopolist, always a monopolist? Not in Microsoft's case. While no one will accuse Microsoft of being a forlorn Tiny Tim, it's also no longer the Ebeneezer Scrooge that it once was. In fact, Microsoft seems haunted by the ghost of monopolies past, to the point that it has lost its ability to fight on equal terms for new markets.

Look at the markets the U.S. government sought to open by suing Microsoft for monopolistic practices. Microsoft's market share in media players, Windows, etc. remains largely unaffected by the government lawsuits.

I miss the smell of monopoly in the morning

Where Microsoft has lost market share (as in Web browsers and mobile), the competition hasn't relied on consent decrees and the like to win. Firefox wins because of its community development and distribution. Apple's iPhone and Google Android are trouncing Windows Mobile because they significantly change the rules of engagement for mobile while providing a better experience.

Government, in other words, probably solved little. But what it did was create a culture of caution within Microsoft that stultifies its ability and desire to compete. (We should note that just today, the European Commission formally ended its browser-focused antitrust pursuit of Microsoft, following concessions by Redmond.)

Microsoft's competitors, like Google, thrive in the wake of this fear, uncertainty, and doubt that plagues Microsoft. Ironically, competitors like Google do many of the same things that got Microsoft into hot water with the U.S. Justice Department.

Google et al. are free to compete. Microsoft is not.

Granted, this constricted freedom may be more psychological than real. As a journalist friend said to me on Tuesday, "Everybody thought Microsoft laughed off the antitrust thing. But I think it really did take the wind out of their competitive sails."

I do, too. In fact, a few years ago a friend and I set out to start a business delivering Microsoft Office-like functionality to mobile phones, which we ultimately abandoned. We didn't worry about Microsoft suing us for patent or copyright infringement. My friend had successfully sued Microsoft for anticompetitive practices in the Caldera litigation. We knew Microsoft's hands were tied by its antitrust settlement.

Microsoft is not the same company it once was. It's under siege, and seemingly incapable of responding. I think we're the poorer for it.

No, this isn't a paean to Microsoft monopolies. Rather, it's a plea for a Microsoft that competes vigorously to win.

Not one that repents in sackcloth and ashes for the "sin" of competing with open source. Not one that is continuously constrained by various antitrust authorities even as it erodes market share for the products in question.

I don't want a monopoly. I understand the important competitive principles that Mozilla and others are fighting for in the ongoing browser/etc. wars.

But I want a competitor again. Microsoft has lost its fight. This should concern us.

It should bother us because companies like Google need to be kept on their toes. It should nag at us because Microsoft writes great software that is comparatively easy to use, and we need its influence on the market.

I hardly use Microsoft software, preferring Apple and Google and open source. But I'd still like Microsoft's influence on the market, and not as a milquetoast competitor too afraid of antitrust shadows to thrash a competitor. Man up, Microsoft.