Monopoly power in the computer world

Microsoft: Court finding could curb company's influence even as it faces emerging technology threats.

November 09, 1999

SHED no tears for Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. Though a federal district judge said his company had acted like a monopolist and had "harmed consumers in ways that are immediate and easily discernible," Mr. Gates is still the biggest chip in the computer software market.

The court found last week that Microsoft had squashed competitors who threatened its monopoly or used tough business tactics to keep other companies in line. This sets the stage for a formal court ruling -- probably next spring -- that the world's most valuable company violated antitrust law.

After Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's verdict, it could be years before all the appeals are resolved. The entire computing marketplace could be radically transformed by then. Microsoft's legal sins may become almost irrelevant in a fast-changing world.

Converging technologies -- cable TV, telephony, the computer and the Internet -- are reducing Microsoft's stranglehold on the personal computing market. Its Windows operating system remains at the heart of Internet browsers and most computing, but innovations are arriving almost daily that could propel the industry into a post-Windows era.

The judge's findings also could impede Microsoft's efforts to use its $18 billion cash hoard to keep ahead of the digital curve by forming partnerships with other high-tech giants. And if Judge Jackson eventually rules that Microsoft is a monopolist, the company could be vulnerable to massive lawsuits from aggrieved high-tech companies.

Still, don't count Mr. Gates out. Today's economy is tied closely to Microsoft's programming packages. That won't change any time soon. Mr. Gates is extending Microsoft's reach into emerging technologies, too.

Judge Jackson may come up with ways to impose good business manners on Microsoft. The company isn't likely to be as arrogant or unyielding in dealing with competitors. It may have to learn to share technology leadership with a host of other companies. Or it may be forced to take the radical step of breaking itself up into two or three companies -- all of which would be market leaders.

The best result of this litigation would be unbridled competition, without fear of a predatory monopolist clamping down on innovations. That could mean lower prices and a wide array of new gadgets and gizmos for customers.

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