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Microsoft's message for AMD

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says court pyrotechnics won't be enough to convict Intel if this is simply a case of bad manners.

First Microsoft. Now Intel.

The antitrust spotlight is about to fall on the other half of the Wintel duopoly. If you believe Advanced Micro Devices, Intel is guilty of abusing its dominant position to undermine would-be challengers.

So far, Uncle Sam's trustbusters are staying on the sidelines while AMD pursues a private lawsuit. We're still in the he-said, she-said stage, but the complaint against Intel does include quite a list of particulars. (Click here for a PDF of the complaint.)

For years, AMD was its own worst enemy.

I suppose you can discount some of this as old-fashioned spite. These two companies share a particularly bitter rivalry in which AMD has historically played second banana. Still, the lawsuit raises the possibility that Intel might have veered over the line separating hard-nosed salesmanship from illegal behavior.

Given the recent roll call of corporate wrongdoing, there's hardly a single American corporation that deserves the benefit of the doubt anymore. And in casting Intel as a predatory bully, AMD also invites fuller scrutiny of its own motivations.

For years, AMD was its own worst enemy. Under the stewardship of its flamboyant but feckless co-founder, Jerry Sanders, the company had a remarkable knack for disappointing Wall Street. With his white mane and tailored pinstripe suits, Sanders made for great copy, but his company remained a perennial underachiever.

The picture began to brighten only after Hector Ruiz came over from Motorola in 2000 as president. By 2002, Sanders got nudged into (long-overdue) retirement, and Ruiz got the opportunity to lead AMD back onto the right track.

Before long, AMD was enjoying increasing sales, higher selling prices and--gasp!--quarterly profits. What's more, the company stepped out ahead of Intel with the introduction of two decidedly superior products, the Opteron and the Athlon. Still, AMD couldn't translate that into lasting share gains.

Statistics hint at one possible narrative. AMD's unit share of the worldwide x86 CPU market was more than 20 percent in 2001. Last year, it fell to less than 16 percent--and this despite its tech leadership over Intel. Put yourself in Ruiz's shoes, and the necessary conclusion is that Intel was not playing fair.

We still don't know if that's true. Sometimes the best mousetrap does not win. (Despite having the best computer design in the business, for example, Apple Computer still has only a puny market share.) Nonetheless, AMD says it can back up its claims. For instance, in its complaint AMD offers the tantalizing suggestion that then-Compaq CEO Michael Capellas stopped buying AMD desktop processors only because Intel "had a gun to his head."

That one is tricky. Capellas allegedly made the comments in late 2000 when PC sales were falling off a cliff as the tech industry headed into a depression. Is it really a surprise that Compaq was hunkering down back then?

AMD's on firmer ground when it points to Intel's more recent entanglement with Japan's Fair Trade Commission. Who knows? If AMD can turn up a few incriminating e-mails during the discovery phase of the trial, then things could get more interesting.

But AMD's legal team might want to revisit the history of the Microsoft saga. While court pyrotechnics make for good headlines, you can't win lasting convictions for bad manners alone.