The Ghosts of Antitrust Past: Part 1

Alec Stapp —  31 January 2020

Big Tech continues to be mired in “a very antitrust situation,” as President Trump put it in 2018. Antitrust advocates have zeroed in on Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon as their primary targets. These advocates justify their proposals by pointing to the trio of antitrust cases against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft. Elizabeth Warren, in announcing her plan to break up the tech giants, highlighted the case against Microsoft:

The government’s antitrust case against Microsoft helped clear a path for Internet companies like Google and Facebook to emerge. The story demonstrates why promoting competition is so important: it allows new, groundbreaking companies to grow and thrive — which pushes everyone in the marketplace to offer better products and services.

Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, summarized the overarching narrative recently (emphasis added):

If there is one thing I’d like the tech world to understand better, it is that the trilogy of antitrust suits against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft played a major role in making the United States the world’s preeminent tech economy.

The IBM-AT&T-Microsoft trilogy of antitrust cases each helped prevent major monopolists from killing small firms and asserting control of the future (of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, respectively).

A list of products and firms that owe at least something to the IBM-AT&T-Microsoft trilogy.

(1) IBM: software as product, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Seagate, Sun, Dell, Compaq

(2) AT&T: Modems, ISPs, AOL, the Internet and Web industries

(3) Microsoft: Google, Facebook, Amazon

Wu argues that by breaking up the current crop of dominant tech companies, we can sow the seeds for the next one. But this reasoning depends on an incorrect — albeit increasingly popular — reading of the history of the tech industry. Entrepreneurs take purposeful action to produce innovative products for an underserved segment of the market. They also respond to broader technological change by integrating or modularizing different products in their market. This bundling and unbundling is a never-ending process.

Whether the government distracts a dominant incumbent with a failed lawsuit (e.g., IBM), imposes an ineffective conduct remedy (e.g., Microsoft), or breaks up a government-granted national monopoly into regional monopolies (e.g., AT&T), the dynamic nature of competition between tech companies will far outweigh the effects of antitrust enforcers tilting at windmills.

In a series of posts for Truth on the Market, I will review the cases against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft and discuss what we can learn from them. In this introductory article, I will explain the relevant concepts necessary for understanding the history of market competition in the tech industry.

Competition for the Market

In industries like tech that tend toward “winner takes most,” it’s important to distinguish between competition during the market maturation phase — when no clear winner has emerged and the technology has yet to be widely adopted — and competition after the technology has been diffused in the economy. Benedict Evans recently explained how this cycle works (emphasis added):

When a market is being created, people compete at doing the same thing better. Windows versus Mac. Office versus Lotus. MySpace versus Facebook. Eventually, someone wins, and no-one else can get in. The market opportunity has closed. Be, NeXT/Path were too late. Monopoly!

But then the winner is overtaken by something completely different that makes it irrelevant. PCs overtook mainframes. HTML/LAMP overtook Win32. iOS & Android overtook Windows. Google overtook Microsoft.

Tech antitrust too often wants to insert a competitor to the winning monopolist, when it’s too late. Meanwhile, the monopolist is made irrelevant by something that comes from totally outside the entire conversation and owes nothing to any antitrust interventions.

In antitrust parlance, this is known as competing for the market. By contrast, in more static industries where the playing field doesn’t shift so radically and the market doesn’t tip toward “winner take most,” firms compete within the market. What Benedict Evans refers to as “something completely different” is often a disruptive product.

Disruptive Innovation

As Clay Christensen explains in the Innovator’s Dilemma, a disruptive product is one that is low-quality (but fast-improving), low-margin, and targeted at an underserved segment of the market. Initially, it is rational for the incumbent firms to ignore the disruptive technology and focus on improving their legacy technology to serve high-margin customers. But once the disruptive technology improves to the point it can serve the whole market, it’s too late for the incumbent to switch technologies and catch up. This process looks like overlapping s-curves:

Source: Max Mayblum

We see these S-curves in the technology industry all the time:

Source: Benedict Evans

As Christensen explains in the Innovator’s Solution, consumer needs can be thought of as “jobs-to-be-done.” Early on, when a product is just good enough to get a job done, firms compete on product quality and pursue an integrated strategy — designing, manufacturing, and distributing the product in-house. As the underlying technology improves and the product overshoots the needs of the jobs-to-be-done, products become modular and the primary dimension of competition moves to cost and convenience. As this cycle repeats itself, companies are either bundling different modules together to create more integrated products or unbundling integrated products to create more modular products.

Moore’s Law

Source: Our World in Data

Moore’s Law is the gasoline that gets poured on the fire of technology cycles. Though this “law” is nothing more than the observation that “the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years,” the implications for dynamic competition are difficult to overstate. As Bill Gates explained in a 1994 interview with Playboy magazine, Moore’s Law means that computer power is essentially “free” from an engineering perspective:

When you have the microprocessor doubling in power every two years, in a sense you can think of computer power as almost free. So you ask, Why be in the business of making something that’s almost free? What is the scarce resource? What is it that limits being able to get value out of that infinite computing power? Software.

Exponentially smaller integrated circuits can be combined with new user interfaces and networks to create new computer classes, which themselves represent the opportunity for disruption.

Bell’s Law of Computer Classes

Source: Brad Campbell

A corollary to Moore’s Law, Bell’s law of computer classes predicts that “roughly every decade a new, lower priced computer class forms based on a new programming platform, network, and interface resulting in new usage and the establishment of a new industry.” Originally formulated in 1972, we have seen this prediction play out in the birth of mainframes, minicomputers, workstations, personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and the Internet of Things.

Understanding these concepts — competition for the market, disruptive innovation, Moore’s Law, and Bell’s Law of Computer Classes — will be crucial for understanding the true effects (or lack thereof) of the antitrust cases against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft. In my next post, I will look at the DOJ’s (ultimately unsuccessful) 13-year antitrust battle with IBM.