The Department of Justice began its antitrust case against IBM on January 17, 1969. The DOJ sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act, claiming IBM tried to monopolize the market for “general-purpose digital computers.” The case lasted almost thirteen years, ending on January 8, 1982 when Assistant Attorney General William Baxter declared the case to be “without merit” and dropped the charges.
The case lasted so long, and expanded in scope so much, that by the time the trial began, “more than half of the practices the government raised as antitrust violations were related to products that did not exist in 1969.” Baltimore law professor Robert Lande said it was “the largest legal case of any kind ever filed.” Yale law professor Robert Bork called it “the antitrust division’s Vietnam.”
As the case dragged on, IBM was faced with increasingly perverse incentives. As NYU law professor Richard Epstein pointed out (emphasis added),
Oddly, enough IBM was able to strengthen its antitrust-related legal position by reducing its market share, which it achieved through raising prices. When the suit was discontinued that share had fallen dramatically since 1969 from about 50 percent of the market to 37 percent in 1982. Only after the government suit ended did IBM lower its prices in order to increase market share.
Source: Levy & Welzer
In an interview with Vox, Tim Wu claimed that without the IBM case, Apple wouldn’t exist and we might still be using mainframe computers (emphasis added):
Vox: You said that Apple wouldn’t exist without the IBM case.
Wu: Yeah, I did say that. The case against IBM took 13 years and we didn’t get a verdict but in that time, there was the “policeman at the elbow” effect. IBM was once an all-powerful company. It’s not clear that we would have had an independent software industry, or that it would have developed that quickly, the idea of software as a product, [without this case]. That was one of the immediate benefits of that excavation.
And then the other big one is that it gave a lot of room for the personal computer to get started, and the software that surrounds the personal computer — two companies came in, Apple and Microsoft. They were sort of born in the wake of the IBM lawsuit. You know they were smart guys, but people did need the pressure off their backs.
Nobody is going to start in the shadow of Facebook and get anywhere. Snap’s been the best, but how are they doing? They’ve been halted. I think it’s a lot harder to imagine this revolutionary stuff that happened in the ’80s. If IBM had been completely unwatched by regulators, by enforcement, doing whatever they wanted, I think IBM would have held on and maybe we’d still be using mainframes, or something — a very different situation.
Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive and current Andreessen Horowitz board partner, had a different take on the matter, attributing IBM’s (belated) success in PCs to its utter failure in minicomputers (emphasis added):
IBM chose to prevent third parties from interoperating with mainframes sometimes at crazy levels (punch card formats). And then chose to defend until the end their business model of leasing … The minicomputer was a direct threat not because of technology but because of those attributes. I’ve heard people say IBM went into PCs because the antitrust loss caused them to look for growth or something. Ha. PCs were spun up because IBM was losing Minis. But everything about the PC was almost a fluke organizationally and strategically. The story of IBM regulation is told as though PCs exist because of the case.
The more likely story is that IBM got swamped by the paradigm shift from mainframes to PCs. IBM was dominant in mainframe computers which were sold to the government and large enterprises. Microsoft, Intel, and other leaders in the PC market sold to small businesses and consumers, which required an entirely different business model than IBM was structured to implement.
ABB – Always Be Bundling (Or Unbundling)
“There’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.” – Jim Barksdale
In 1969, IBM unbundled its software and services from hardware sales. As many industry observers note, this action precipitated the rise of the independent software development industry. But would this have happened regardless of whether there was an ongoing antitrust case? Given that bundling and unbundling is ubiquitous in the history of the computer industry, the answer is likely yes.
As the following charts show, IBM first created an integrated solution in the mainframe market, controlling everything from raw materials and equipment to distribution and service. When PCs disrupted mainframes, the entire value chain was unbundled. Later, Microsoft bundled its operating system with applications software.
The first smartphone to disrupt the PC market was the Apple iPhone — an integrated solution. And once the technology became “good enough” to meet the average consumer’s needs, Google modularized everything except the operating system (Android) and the app store (Google Play).
Another key prong in Tim Wu’s argument that the government served as an effective “policeman at the elbow” in the IBM case is that the company adopted an open model when it entered the PC market and did not require an exclusive license from Microsoft to use its operating system. But exclusivity is only one term in a contract negotiation. In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1994, Bill Gates explained how he was able to secure favorable terms from IBM (emphasis added):
Our restricting IBM’s ability to compete with us in licensing MS-DOS to other computer makers was the key point of the negotiation. We wanted to make sure only we could license it. We did the deal with them at a fairly low price, hoping that would help popularize it. Then we could make our move because we insisted that all other business stay with us. We knew that good IBM products are usually cloned, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that eventually we could license DOS to others. We knew that if we were ever going to make a lot of money on DOS it was going to come from the compatible guys, not from IBM. They paid us a fixed fee for DOS. We didn’t get a royalty, even though we did make some money on the deal. Other people paid a royalty. So it was always advantageous to us, the market grew and other hardware guys were able to sell units.
In this version of the story, IBM refrained from demanding an exclusive license from Microsoft not because it was fearful of antitrust enforcers but because Microsoft made significant concessions on price and capped its upside by agreeing to a fixed fee rather than a royalty. These economic and technical explanations for why IBM wasn’t able to leverage its dominant position in mainframes into the PC market are more consistent with the evidence than Wu’s “policeman at the elbow” theory.
In my next post, I will discuss the other major antitrust case that came to an end in 1982: AT&T.