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Open source foiled Microsoft antitrust case

Microsoft, seen as a threat to innovation, prompted U.S. oversight a decade ago. That ends this week.

May 11, 2011 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Just over a decade ago, a U.S. District Court judge decided that Microsoft was as much of a threat to the technology sector as Standard Oil was almost a century ago to the oil industry, and with that he ordered Microsoft split into two.

Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson said Microsoft had "placed an oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune." Bill Gates called the break-up decision "the most massive attempt at government regulation of the technology industry ever."

This was in 2000. Jackson's break-up order didn't survive appeal, which limited the remedies to a set of rules to keep Microsoft from punishing equipment makers who sold rival products, and from withholding application programming interfaces (API) to third-party developers.

The U.S. Department of Justice remedies supervision ends Thursday, closing the landmark case, which began in 1998. But the questions posed by Jackson's decision remain.

Among them: Did tech innovation suffer over the last 10 years because Microsoft wasn't broken up?

"Not really," said Vinton Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, in response to the question at the Interop conference this week. "It has to do with the fact that open source has become such a strong force in the software world -- look at Linux, and its predecessor, Unix, look at Android, or Chrome and the Chrome OS to follow," as well as the other open source initiatives, he said.

Google was incorporated in Sept. 1998, one month before the start of the Microsoft antitrust case.

"Open source saved us," said Simon Crosby, the CTO of Citrix, adding that innovation has happened in completely unpredictable ways over the last decade. For instance, "Amazon web services would not exist if were not for the Xen hypervisor," he said.

But at the time of the antitrust case, the competitive threats from Google-like companies, cloud computing, and smartphones were only vaguely imagined.

What loomed foremost in the courtroom was Microsoft's massive market share in desktop operating systems and productivity apps, as well as the dramatic decline of the Netscape Web browser with the arrival of Internet Explorer.

Economists from Stanford, MIT and Berkeley filed briefs advising the court on remedies, giving Jackson the arguments for strong action.

"The most important benefit for society that will be created by this remedy will come from faster innovation," wrote Paul Romer, a professor of economics at Stanford, in a court brief about a break-up.

Jackson's order created two new and powerful companies, one to run the operating system business, and the other, its applications. Each company would have revenue at more than $8 billion a year and profits of more than $3 billion in 2000 dollars.

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