Apple replaces Microsoft as technology's bad boy

There was a time when Microsoft was seen as the alpha predator of the tech world, destroying anything in its path by any means necessary, and Apple was a counter-cultural icon, succeeding through sweetness and light. That's no longer the case. Today there's a gentler, kindlier Microsoft, and Apple is being investigated for anti-trust violations and possibly illegal business practices.

Here's just the latest piece of evidence about Apple's potentially predatory business practices: The New York Times reports that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating Apple for anti-trust violations related to its strongarm tactics in digital music.

The newspaper says that during the course of the inquiry so far:

investigators had asked in particular about recent allegations that Apple used its dominant market position to persuade music labels to refuse to give the online retailer exclusive access to music about to be released.

The investigation comes after a report in Billboard magazine that Apple had used its digital music market clout to force music labels to stop participating in an Amazon Daily Deal promotion. In that promotion Amazon receives a one-day exclusive on a new digital music track, in exchange for heavily promoting it.

Billboard reported that Apple told music labels not to participate in the promotion, and that if they did participate, Apple would punish the labels by refusing to give their songs marketing support on iTunes.

That's not exactly what I'd call sweetness and light. It's more like Microsoft in the bad old days.

This comes not long after Apple is facing another anti-trust investigation, over banning non-Apple tools from being used to develop for the iPhone.

Then, of course, there was the actions Apple took when Gizmodo purchased a lost iPhone prototype and published tech details --- and Apple took actions that led to the police raiding the home of a Gizmodo editor and taking away his computers. Apple security guards also showed up at the editor's door.

Cue up "Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In?" I think not.

The New York Times article notes:

Though the Justice Department’s inquiry is preliminary, it represents additional evidence that Apple, once the perennial underdog in high tech, is now viewed by government regulators as a dominant company with considerable market power.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has been showing signs that it plans to succeed through cooperation rather than borderline business practices. Sam Altman, co-founder of Mountain View-based Loopt, which makes a cell phone-based GPS sharing system, was recently quoted as saying about Microsoft that years ago, "I would have told you, 'Microsoft is really evil.' I would never work with them." Today, though, "they're an incredible partner," he says.

In the last week, for example, Microsoft announced two open source projects that are, in the words of Computerworld, "intended to improve interoperability with Microsoft Outlook files and even enable easier migrations from Outlook."

The world certainly seems turned upside down. What's next, Steve Jobs trading in his trademarked black turtleneck for a three-piece suit, and Steve Ballmer coming to work in a tie-dyed T-shirt?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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