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Lessons Learned From The Microsoft Anti-Trust Case That Began In The 1990s


This month in All Tech Considered, why everyone wants to break up big tech. From federal regulators to Congress to state attorneys general, everyone seems to be trying to figure out whether major tech companies have gotten too big, too powerful and maybe broken antitrust laws. For clues about what Google and Facebook and Amazon and Apple might face, we're going to take a look back at one of the biggest antitrust cases of the past few decades.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: After weeks of mounting tension, today the Justice Department and a coalition of 20 states filed a pair of broad antitrust lawsuits against the world's leading software company Microsoft.

KELLY: Now, that is from our show on May 18, 1998. The case had actually started to take shape almost a decade earlier, and the end of it wouldn't come until years later. Well, here to explain the lessons that today's big tech giants can take from the Microsoft case is reporter Adi Robertson of The Verge.

Adi Robertson, welcome.


KELLY: Let's start with that moment - 1998. Walk me through the landscape of what was going on in terms of Microsoft and federal regulators starting to think very hard about reining it in then.

ROBERTSON: Microsoft had been skirmishing with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission for almost a decade at that point over, how did it achieve massive dominance in operating systems? And then in 1995, Bill Gates realized that he had missed the Internet.

KELLY: What does that mean, he had missed the Internet?

ROBERTSON: Microsoft had focused so much on making Windows important that it had missed that the Internet could make operating systems almost obsolete. And there was this one company making this one browser, Netscape Navigator, that had achieved a really strong presence already. And Microsoft realized that they needed to stop them.

KELLY: Right around this time, Bill Gates ended up testifying before Congress.


BILL GATES: The products that Microsoft makes have a very short lifetime in terms of their attractiveness to customers. In the span of the term of a senator, we create a product; it becomes a very popular product; and then that product has no demand whatsoever.

KELLY: Adi Robertson, if - when you go back and listen through to all of that testimony, the thrust of it is Bill Gates mounting a vigorous defense of Microsoft, saying it's not a monopoly. Was that a - an argument that regulators and state attorneys general bought?

ROBERTSON: Ultimately, no. Ultimately, they decided that Microsoft had been incredibly aggressive at trying to drive Netscape out of business, which they ultimately did. They would pressure companies not to work with them, and they were also giving Internet Explorer away for free. So they were just massively undercutting this product that was partially paid by using their incredibly popular operating system and integrating this browser right into it.

KELLY: What do you see as lessons learned, as similarities between how the Microsoft case unfolded and what companies Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook are facing today?

ROBERTSON: Maybe the clearest point of comparison is between Microsoft and Google. You have a company that controls this whole stack of technology. It runs an incredibly popular operating system. It runs incredibly popular apps on top of that operating system, and it uses those things to push other companies out, arguably.

One of the lessons is that this genuinely is an issue, even if it is sort of giving these things away for free, even if it is saying, oh, well, you can uninstall this; you can go and take your own Chrome alternative and install it. The law has said that these things have an effect, that these things can still be damaging.

KELLY: I suppose - worth pointing out that Microsoft is still around, is actually doing pretty well. Is there a lesson there for these companies facing potential litigation that, you know, they might come out of it and be doing just fine a decade, two decades from now?

ROBERTSON: Yeah, I think the big argument around Microsoft was that the point was not to kill the company, that the point was to make the company sort of more circumspect about shutting out competition. So when a company like Google shows up and starts working in the Web, Microsoft realizes that it can operate and it can work without mercilessly destroying them.

KELLY: That is reporter Adi Robertson of The Verge. Thanks very much.

ROBERTSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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