The End of An Era?

Josh Wright —  29 April 2011

Well, perhaps not quite the end of an era given all of the intense antitrust scrutiny that continues in the high-tech sector.  But it seems like it should not go without noting that the Microsoft case will officially come to an end on May 12th.  The San Francisco Chronicle observes:

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.

And while no modern antitrust conversation is complete without speculation about whether Google is the new Microsoft, it is also worth noting that it is not quite clear that, given the current scrutiny of high-tech antitrust by enforcers in the US and abroad, Microsoft itself is in the clear.  The Chronicle story gives a few reason to think that (despite its various interferences as a would-be plaintiff or complainant in antitrust proceedings around the globe) its days as an antitrust defendant are not necessarily behind us — expiration of the US consent decree notwithstanding:
  • 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 behavior 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 behavior than companies who have never been deemed monopolies.
The short Joint Status Report is here.