Ghosts of Antitrust Past: Part 4 (Microsoft)

Alec Stapp —  5 February 2020

The DOJ and 20 state AGs sued Microsoft on May 18, 1998 for unlawful maintenance of its monopoly position in the PC market. The government accused the desktop giant of tying its operating system (Windows) and its web browser (Internet Explorer). Microsoft had indeed become dominant in the PC market by the late 1980s:

Source: Asymco

But after the introduction of smartphones in the mid-2000s, Microsoft’s market share of personal computing units (including PCs, smartphones, and tablets) collapsed:

Source: Benedict Evans

Steven Sinofsy pointed out why this was a classic case of disruptive innovation rather than sustaining innovation: “Google and Microsoft were competitors but only by virtue of being tech companies hiring engineers. After that, almost nothing about what was being made or sold was similar even if things could ultimately be viewed as substitutes. That is literally the definition of innovation.”

Browsers

Microsoft grew to dominance during the PC era by bundling its desktop operating system (Windows) with its productivity software (Office) and modularizing the hardware providers. By 1995, Bill Gates had realized that the internet was the next big thing, calling it “The Internet Tidal Wave” in a famous internal memo. Gates feared that the browser would function as “middleware” and disintermediate Microsoft from its relationship with the end-user. At the time, Netscape Navigator was gaining market share from the first browser to popularize the internet, Mosaic (so-named because it supported a multitude of protocols).

Later that same year, Microsoft released its own browser, Internet Explorer, which would be bundled with its Windows operating system. Internet Explorer soon grew to dominate the market:

Source: Browser Wars

Steven Sinofsky described how the the browser threatened to undermine the Windows platform (emphasis added):

Microsoft saw browsers as a platform threat to Windows. Famously. Browsers though were an app — running everywhere, distributed everywhere. Microsoft chose to compete as though browsing was on par with Windows (i.e., substitutes).

That meant doing things like IBM did — finding holes in distribution where browsers could “sneak” in (e.g., OEM deals) and seeing how to make Microsoft browser work best and only with Windows. Sound familiar? It does to me.

Imagine (some of us did) a world instead where Microsoft would have built a browser that was an app distributed everywhere, running everywhere. That would have been a very different strategy. One that some imagined, but not when Windows was central.

Showing how much your own gravity as a big company can make even obvious steps strategically weak: Microsoft knew browsers had to be cross-platform so it built Internet Explorer for Mac and Unix. Neat. But wait, the main strategic differentiator for Internet Explorer was ActiveX which was clearly Windows only.

So even when trying to compete in a new market the strategy was not going to work technically and customers would immediately know. Either they would ignore the key part of Windows or the key part of x-platform. This is what a big company “master plan” looks like … Active Desktop.

Regulators claimed victory but the loss already happened. But for none of the reasons the writers of history say at least [in my humble opinion]. As a reminder, Microsoft stopped working on Internet Explorer 7 years before Chrome even existed — literally didn’t release a new version for 5+ years.

One of the most important pieces of context for this case is that other browsers were also free for personal use (even if they weren’t bundled with an operating system). At the time, Netscape was free for individuals. Mosaic was free for non-commercial use. Today, Chrome and Firefox are free for all users. Chrome makes money for Google by increasing the value of its ecosystem and serving as a complement for its other products (particularly search). Firefox is able to more than cover its costs by charging Google (and others) to be the default option in its browser. 

By bundling Internet Explorer with Windows for free, Microsoft was arguably charging the market rate. In highly competitive markets, economic theory tells us the price should approach marginal cost — which in software is roughly zero. As James Pethokoukis argued, there are many more reasons to be skeptical about the popular narrative surrounding the Microsoft case. The reasons for doubt range across features, products, and markets, including server operating systems, mobile devices, and search engines. Let’s examine a few of them.

Operating Systems

In a 2007 article for Wired titled “I Blew It on Microsoft,” Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, admits that his predictions about the future of competition in computer operating systems failed to account for the potential of open-source solutions:

We pro-regulators were making an assumption that history has shown to be completely false: That something as complex as an OS has to be built by a commercial entity. Only crazies imagined that volunteers outside the control of a corporation could successfully create a system over which no one had exclusive command. We knew those crazies. They worked on something called Linux.

According to Web Technology Surveys, as of April 2019, about 70 percent of servers use a Linux-based operating system while the remaining 30 percent use Windows.

Mobile

In 2007, Steve Ballmer believed that Microsoft would be the dominant company in smartphones, saying in an interview with USA Today (emphasis added):

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

But as Ballmer himself noted in 2013, Microsoft was too committed to the Windows platform to fully pivot its focus to mobile:

If there’s one thing I regret, there was a period in the early 2000s when we were so focused on what we had to do around Windows that we weren’t able to redeploy talent to the new device form factor called the phone.

This is another classic example of the innovator’s dilemma. Microsoft enjoyed high profit margins in its Windows business, which caused the company to underrate the significance of the shift from PCs to smartphones.

Search

To further drive home how dependent Microsoft was on its legacy products, this 2009 WSJ piece notes that the company had a search engine ad service in 2000 and shut it down to avoid cannibalizing its core business:

Nearly a decade ago, early in Mr. Ballmer’s tenure as CEO, Microsoft had its own inner Google and killed it. In 2000, before Google married Web search with advertising, Microsoft had a rudimentary system that did the same, called Keywords, running on the Web. Advertisers began signing up. But Microsoft executives, in part fearing the company would cannibalize other revenue streams, shut it down after two months.

Ben Thompson says we should wonder if the case against Microsoft was a complete waste of everyone’s time (and money): 

In short, to cite Microsoft as a reason for antitrust action against Google in particular is to get history completely wrong: Google would have emerged with or without antitrust action against Microsoft; if anything the real question is whether or not Google’s emergence shows that the Microsoft lawsuit was a waste of time and money.

The most obvious implications of the Microsoft case were negative: (1) PCs became bloated with “crapware” (2) competition in the browser market failed to materialize for many years (3) PCs were less safe because Microsoft couldn’t bundle security software, and (4) some PC users missed out on using first-party software from Microsoft because it couldn’t be bundled with Windows. When weighed against these large costs, the supposed benefits pale in comparison.

Conclusion

In all three cases I’ve discussed in this series — AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft — the real story was not that antitrust enforcers divined the perfect time to break up — or regulate — the dominant tech company. The real story was that slow and then sudden technological change outpaced the organizational inertia of incumbents, permanently displacing the former tech giants from their dominant position in the tech ecosystem. 

The next paradigm shift will be near-impossible to predict. Those who know which technology — and when — it will be would make a lot more money implementing their ideas than they would by playing pundit in the media. Regardless of whether the future winner will be Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or some unknown startup company, antitrust enforcers should remember that the proper goal of public policy in this domain is to maximize total innovation — from firms both large and small. Fetishizing innovation by small companies — and using law enforcement to harass big companies in the hopes for an indirect benefit to competition — will make us all worse off in the long run.