Two weeks ago as of this writing—May 12, 2011, to be exact—the United States federal government's almost 10-year oversight of Microsoft as a result of its successful antitrust lawsuit expired without any real fanfare, significant press, or any real speculation on what that might mean for the industry. I find that very interesting and worth some speculation; I believe you do, too.
Firstly let's review as quickly as possible the history of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) suit against Microsoft. In 1998 the DOJ sued Microsoft over the company's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, alleging that business practice was anticompetitive. The real issue was that Microsoft's Internet Explorer was crushing Netscape, and for that simple reason you can see the DOJ's point. How a decade of browser wars have changed the times. I was working on an Internet server product at Microsoft in 1998 when all this came down, and you can imagine the rumors around the water machine at Microsoft:
"Gates is moving the company to Vancouver and installing our own bullet train so we don't have to move."
"Gates told Janet Reno to **** off right to her face, and that is why there is a lawsuit."
I laugh thinking back to those days. But you can also see Microsoft's side of the argument. Check out this article on the Center for the Advance of Capitalism's website. It clearly elaborates a number of problems and inconsistencies with the DOJ's suit... and makes Microsoft look pretty good in the process.
Either way, that is a lot of water under the bridge, and in 2000, a judge ruled in favor of the US federal government, but the decision was overturned upon appeal, leading the DOJ to offer a settlement with Microsoft.
Since 2001, Microsoft's Windows team (and related teams) has functioned under DOJ oversight to make sure they were abiding by the terms of the settlement, which mainly required Microsoft to share portions of the Windows API with the industry and sell licenses for reasonable prices. It's that oversight that is over. I am not deeply involved with what that oversight by the federal government meant to the Windows team, but whatever "big brother" was watching, it is clear they are not watching any longer. And we can draw a couple speculative conclusions from that. First, if the DOJ is not focused on Microsoft, I think it goes without saying that the DOJ will focus their attention on the anti-competitive practices of Google and Apple; probably in that order. And second, we have seen a cultural shift in Microsoft under Windows President Steven Sinofsky over the last couple years: It is a new, secret Microsoft.
If you are curious about the significance of a potential anti-competitive showdown between the DOJ and Google, do an Internet search on "google anti-competitive practices". Wow. Google has been accused of anti-competitive and monopolistic tactics in multiple spots of the Internet advertising industry. I was not even aware of the significance and breadth of the problems until I started reading. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Google has caught the attention of the DOJ. It is what the DOJ does or doesn't do with Google that is up for speculation. And here is something for you to think about: With the DOJ focusing on someone else, who's to say Microsoft is not going to make Skype Windows-only and charge for its use? Because of the expiration of the agreement, Microsoft can really do whatever they want in Windows without a decade or so of consequence, and if Microsoft's $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype goes through, it certainly makes sense for Microsoft to embed Skype into Windows.
The New, Secret Microsoft
Coming clean and clear on the roadmap has been part of the culture of Microsoft for 20-plus years. It's part of the reason Microsoft has been so successful with hundreds of thousands of partners and millions of customers. Technology moves so quickly, and we all agree it is hard to plan—especially in application development—without knowledge of the roadmap. Do you really feel like you have a grasp on Microsoft's application development tools, plumbing, and platforms? Do you feel as if you have the information to plan the next two years of application development? Is HTML5 really our future? Will Silverlight be relegated to departmental line of business apps? Does WPF completely go away? Does .NET for the most part go away?
If you have studied management on any level, you know Management 101 says you can give, give, give, but you cannot take away without negative consequences. When you take away, bad things happen. I am seeing a phenomenal cultural shift in the secrecy of Microsoft to their customers, their partners, and even their own employees. Microsoft has a cultural history of sharing their roadmap and getting partners and customers excited about their upcoming waves of cutting-edge technologies. When you change a culture by going dark, you risk some fallout. Humans are prone to hysteria and to flocking... especially in technology, where it is often safest to follow. Granted, unveiling an entire new technology stack as a surprise could be Microsoft's biggest coup ever, but it can also backfire. People could get upset, and customers might flee to perceived competition where a clear roadmap is defined.
A number of conclusions can be drawn, albeit on pure speculation, but only time will tell if there are any significant implications of the Microsoft antitrust agreement expiring and a somewhat secret Microsoft.
Tim Huckaby ([email protected]) is CEO and founder of Actus Interactive Software and InterKnowlogy, experts in .NET and Microsoft platforms. He has worked on and with product teams at Microsoft for many years, has coauthored several books, and is a frequent conference speaker.