In the realm of legal procedure, it seems nothing is ever really over. And yet, with Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotellys recent ruling in the Microsoft antitrust case, there are plenty of signs that its time to move on.
To be sure, we have regrets about the last roughly half-decade of proceedings. First, things dragged on much longer than was healthy for the industry, with the legal system showing it cant keep pace with IT. Second, the results are frustratingly inconclusive: Microsoft was found guilty of serious offenses, but rather than being punished or restructured so as to foster competition, the company must merely cease certain practices and be monitored for compliance. Its not far from the wrist slap delivered by Assistant Attorney General Anne Bingaman in 1994. Whats more, legal action could continue. Theres the possibility of civil suits against Microsoftand the nine dissenting states and the District of Columbia could appeal.
We cant help but recall 1982, when the Reagan administration dropped the 13-year antitrust case against IBM. Although IBM was not found guilty, as Microsoft was, IBM moderated its competitive practices significantly and issued a code of conduct for employees. Microsoft has already done the same. "Microsoft has learned and grown through the experience of the last four years. We must be aware of how our actions affect others and are perceived by them," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Continuing with the parallel, competitors feared IBM once the Department of Justice backed off. Some now believe Microsoft has a license to hunt defenseless rivals. But IBMs prosperity was short-lived. Within a decade, the company was collapsing of its own weight. Gates, Ballmer & Co. will try to prevent a similar debacle, but ensuring that a company as big and dominant as Microsoft keeps a sharp competitive edge without resorting to anti-competitive practices might be harder than Microsoft execs imagine. We think the task would have been easier for all concerned had Microsoft been split into several companies. But that approach is moot. Its time to move on.
The first step, as Ballmer implies, is for Microsoft to take the ruling and the remedy of surveillance seriously. Then a new and better future for the software industry will be possible.