Microsoft Antitrust Oversight Ends In May, But Don’t Expect A Return To Its Old Ways

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More than 13 years after the U.S. Department of Justice launched its antitrust probe into Microsoft, the case will finally come to an end on May 12. But don’t expect the company to return to its old pillaging ways.

In a final hearing in the case yesterday, Judge Kollar-Kotelly agreed to let the consent decree between Microsoft and the DoJ expire on May 12 as planned.

The judge had already extended the oversight twice — it was originally supposed to expire in 2007, but the judge pushed out the date a year because Microsoft didn’t move quickly enough to release useful documentation about how Windows PCs communicate with other software. In 2009, she extended the date for another two years.

But just because the consent decree is over, that doesn’t mean that Microsoft will suddenly start doing things like bundling a Bing search bar into Windows or creating “secret” protocols that help Windows PCs work better with Microsoft Online than with other cloud services (to take two totally hypothetical examples).

Why not?

  • Europe. The EU has already fined Microsoft billions from a similar investigation that ended in 2004, and has since launched at least one more preliminary investigation into browser choice. Microsoft offered a “browser ballot” in Europe before the second investigation went too far, but competitors are watching for any hint of Microsoft’s old behaviour and will run to the EU with a new complaint if they see it.
  • Precedent. Although the final settlement between Microsoft and the U.S. government wasn’t that harmful, the case itself set an important precedent: Microsoft was found to have monopoly power in the market for personal computer operating systems. That means it’s still subject to a different standard of behaviour than companies who have never been deemed monopolies. 
  • The company has changed. Microsoft never wants to go through the cost and distraction of a big antitrust trial again, and has put big sweeping changes in place to prevent it. Employees have more idea how far they can go when negotiating with partners and customers, and a lot of decisions still have to be checked with the legal department. The company is much less random about how it shares information with the industry — it has a formalized program in place to licence the protocols required by the EU, as well as patents and other IP. (This licensing program can also be used for strategic purposes too — like raising the cost of “free” competitors like Android.) The company also understands the importance of lobbying — it didn’t before — and does a better job of managing its public image.

Perhaps most important, the industry has shifted: PC operating systems are no longer the defining product in high-tech, and Microsoft has lost power as the Web and mobile platforms have become more important. 

Nowadays, watchdogs are much more concerned about Google and Apple, and Microsoft was recently named one of the most ethical companies in the world. How times have changed.