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Microsoft and the Antitrust Myth

I've been an unwitting accomplice in a deception that has gone on for too long, and now I'd to apologize for that and set the record straight. I'm referring of course to the convenient story that Microsoft's antitrust woes in the United States--and then again later in Europe--were responsible for a lost decade in which the software giant abandoned its drive, its aggression, and its position of dominance over the tech industry, ceding the way for faster, smarter competitors like Apple and Google. Like other conspiracy theories, however, this story became common knowledge simply because it seems right. It makes sense. It's believable. But it's almost complete baloney. It's a myth.

What brought this on was one of those typically pointless and anonymous New York Times opinion pieces where the paper appears to take a stand but then says absolutely nothing of substance. (I've been reading this paper for a decade, and these little puff pieces are a huge pet peeve of mine; it's even worse when it touches on a topic which I happen to understand better than the opinion writers.) This one, called Did the Microsoft Case Change the World?, is classic NYT in that it never really answers the central question posed in its headline.

"The conditions imposed by the court ... did seem to alter Microsoft’s behavior, taming its ruthless drive," the editorial reads. "Today, Microsoft is way behind the curve." It's unclear why that's "good" or why (or how) it "changed the world." But the paper believes that today's emerging Internet superpowers--Google and Facebook--should be held to the same level of scrutiny, apparently so they too can be kept "behind the curve," allowing other future competitors to succeed, artificially. "We support efforts [to investigate Google in Europe and the US]. Innovation needs competition."

Pointless, yes, but The New York Times did at least some good because it got me thinking. Were Microsoft's antitrust problems really the cause of its lost decade? Was this once mighty tech power felled by governmental dictate?

No, I don't think it was. And as I said, I think I can prove it.

Microsoft settled its antitrust case with the US government on November 2, 2001, putting an end (of sorts) to a three year legal nightmare whose original outcome established that Windows was a monopoly, that Microsoft had abused its market power, and that it should be broken up into two companies. Microsoft agreed that it would not retaliate against partners (like PC makers) that partnered with Microsoft's competitors, to create uniform licensing terms for Windows, to share APIs with third parties, and to allow PC makers to optionally replace (or augment) some Windows "middleware" applications if they desired, among other minor concessions.

These changes didn't impair Microsoft's ability to compete in the slightest, which is even more obvious in retrospect. But don't take my word on it. All you have to do is remember history.

On October 28, 2003, Microsoft unveiled its plans for Longhorn, the major Windows release that was to follow Windows XP and provide a foundation for the company's next decade. It is impossible to overstate how exciting this event was at the time, and the huge and positive impact that it had on technology enthusiasts (including yours truly). When Microsoft announced this information at PDC 2003, it was on top of the world and could do no wrong. It was a truly heady time.

It started with an army of geeks who flooded into the convention hall, literally running down the halls and jumping over seats to get as close as they could to the stage. Think about that for a second: These guys were literally pushing each other out of the way to see a tech demo. People talk today about Windows 95 being some sort of high point for Microsoft marketing, and while I'm sure that's absolutely true, it's equally true that the PDC 2003 Longhorn announcement was the absolute apex for Microsoft-oriented developers and enthusiasts. There was nothing like it before. And there's been nothing like it since. Even Apple product announcements don't come close. PDC 2003 was a feeding frenzy.

Then the event actually began with a soaring video, set to rock music, about the features Microsoft aspired to add to Longhorn. As beautiful, photo realistic images of software that would never exist swept across the screen, the several thousand people in the audience began grinning like madmen, like kids forced to wait for Christmas to get started. And when the welcome video ended with a triumphant message--"We are geeks bearing gifts. And. We're. Just. Getting. Started"--the auditorium exploded in delirious delight. Microsoft had us, totally and completely. The company could do no wrong. And again, this was two years after it settled with the US government. You know, when it was so seriously crippled.

Then there was the demo. Hillel Cooperman established himself as Microsoft's obvious answer to Steve Jobs, deftly maneuvering around a Longhorn desktop that featured beautiful imagery, see-through glass windows, dynamic folders views and more. He talked about Avalon, and glass, and WinFS, and peer-to-peer desktop sharing, and incredible automatic layout effects that made previous web site and application layouts look childish by comparison. They were going to make Windows awesome, simpler than before and much more beautiful than anything we'd ever seen on a computer.

I can almost cry just thinking about this now.  And not just because PDC 2003 was so freaking awesome, so life changing and so incredibly over the top. I almost cry now because it was all complete baloney. Virtually none of that software that Microsoft showed off would ever ship in any kind of reasonable form, ever. Heck, not only was that welcome video just complete fiction, that Cooperman demo wasn't even done on actual software code: It was just a cheap Director demo, showing off what Microsoft hoped it could accomplish with Longhorn.

In the end, what Microsoft accomplished was reasonable, but uninspiring. More important--and this is critical, I think, and the point behind my premise--is that it shipped late; very, very late. Longhorn, of course, became known as Windows Vista. It was a project so horribly mismanaged that Microsoft actually cancelled development of Longhorn after several years of work and simply started over from scratch. The resulting Windows Vista OS shipped so late that it sapped all the  enthusiasm we once had, a death by a thousand cuts as feature after feature was jettisoned. In fact, the only semi-major user experience feature from Longhorn that made its way into the final Vista product, arguably, was the Aero glass stuff. The rest of the promised functionality was just so much hot air. (Vista included important foundational changes for Windows that would eventually benefit future versions as well, but this was never obvious or important to users.)

So, yes, Vista was a dud. It was a late dud that didn't deliver even a tenth of the promised Longhorn functionality. It was everything Longhorn wasn't: Big, heavy, and incompatible. And it was a mess. There were weird little pieces left over from Longhorn all over Vista, like those tiny vestigial legs in a whale, apps and features that never went anywhere and were abandoned when Microsoft cleaned up things in Windows 7. Today, it's like Longhorn never happened.

But Longhorn did happen. And it is the sheer length of time that Microsoft wasted trying and then failing to deliver Longhorn that put the final nail in the coffin of Microsoft's drive and aggression.  That is, two years after Microsoft was supposedly hobbled by its US antitrust settlement, it unleashed its most exciting OS announcement ever. But it wasn't until three years after that that it became obvious that Microsoft had lost its way. And it was Longhorn that did it, not the antitrust case.

Longhorn was Microsoft's moon shot. It was going to be the fulfillment of years-old goals to deliver such advances as a database-backed file system and a high-end 3D rendered user interface, and to really push the bounds of the day's hardware. We forget this now, because Windows 7 will run on functionality retarded, low-end netbooks today, but Windows used to actually get bad press because it was so "far ahead of the hardware" of the day. That's a nice way of saying that Windows ran slow on typical PC hardware, but from the perspective of the engineers at Microsoft, they were simply writing to tomorrow's hardware, as any forward-leaning geek would. Longhorn's failure put a stop to that. And to a lot of other aggressive behavior.

Put simply, Longhorn was such a disaster that it effectively killed Microsoft. Unfamiliar with such abject failure, the company circled the wagons and slowed things down. The people responsible for Vista were fired or left on their own. Today, they're most scattered around elsewhere in the company, or elsewhere in the tech industry. And Microsoft's core product, Windows, has moved into a predictable, slow, three year release cycle in which there are no longer major and minor versions of the product as before. Here's a Windows 8 shocker for you: It won't raise the hardware bar at all, and will run on the same spec PCs as its predecessor. Progress!

More generally, Microsoft has struggled to enter or succeed in new markets, and faster (though not always "smaller") companies like Apple and Google have raced to dominate with products that Microsoft would have arguably owned had they happened a decade earlier. But you know that story already.

Longhorn happened, and failed, because Microsoft had gotten too big. It got too big because it was so successful for so long, and this happened even after it had settled with the US government. The company believed it could do anything, even something as fantastical (in retrospect) as Longhorn. What it didn't realize at the time was that the soaring level of corporate complexity it had put in place destroyed any chance of Longhorn ever working. Longhorn was never going to work. They just didn't realize that in 2003.

Antitrust action didn't curtail Microsoft's behavior in any meaningful way. Instead, it was its own internal failure to deliver a next generation OS and change the world that killed Microsoft. This wasn't a killing. It was a suicide. And it would have happened without any help from antitrust.

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