Antitrust Law Can’t Keep Up with High-Tech

by on July 29, 2009 · 25 comments

A key point that Berin and I try to get across in our Forbes editorial today about the Yahoo!-Microsoft deal is that the high-tech marketplace evolves too rapidly for creaky Analog Era antitrust laws to keep up. We wanted to say more on that point in our piece, but we had a tight deadline (and a strict word limit!)  Well, turns out that we really don’t need to do so now because Farhad Manjoo of Slate has done a better job than we ever could have making that point in this essay today entitled, “The Case Against the Case Against Google“:

But if the government was right on the facts [in the Microsoft case], it was wrong on the big picture. The theory behind the prosecution was that Microsoft’s mobster tactics would raise the price of software and slow down innovation. But that didn’t happen. In 2002, Microsoft settled the antitrust case with the Bush administration; it faced no substantial penalties for its years of bad behavior. At that point, it still looked unbeatable—it had the same OS monopoly, office-software monopoly, and Web-browser monopoly. And you know what happened? It got beat anyway. Many of Microsoft’s assets turned out not to matter, because upstarts like Google and old foes like Apple found ways to innovate around them.

Indeed, in many ways Microsoft’s size was a liability, not an asset. This is the classic innovator’s dilemma; the company was so intent on protecting its cash cows—it derives most of its revenue from two products, Windows and Office—that it was blind to opportunities in new markets. Microsoft couldn’t make a Web e-mail system like Gmail, because that would have threatened Outlook. And why should Microsoft bother with free online word processing apps when Office was doing so well? When journalist Steven Levy showed Bill Gates the first iPod, Gates’ first reaction was, “It’s only for Macintosh?” Gates saw the iPod through the lens of desktop computers; if the iPod connected only to Macs, it didn’t pose a threat to Microsoft. What he didn’t figure out was that the iPod would herald the iTunes Store, allowing Apple to become not only the most influential entertainment company in the world, but also the dominant software maker for mobile devices. Yes, the first iPod didn’t work on Windows. In time, it would help render Windows irrelevant.

Exactly right. Antitrust advocates have often failed to appreciate that markets are evolutionary and dynamic, and when those markets are built upon code, the pace and nature of change becomes unrelenting and utterly unpredictable.

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