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Microsoft oversight ends with little to show for effort

Napster

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As Microsoft's 2002 settlement with the Justice Department expires today, it's easy to look back at notice how much has changed in techdom. Web search has become a wildly profitable business. The burgeoning smartphone and tablet markets have exploded the notion of how people will do their computing. And social networks emerged, shifting computer users' focus.
But one thing hasn't changed is Microsoft's grip on the personal computer market. In 2002, Microsoft's Windows operating system held 93.9 percent of the desktop and laptop computer operating system market, according to research firm, IDC. And today? Microsoft's share sits at 91.1 percent.
(Credit: Microsoft)
The end of the consent decree is certainly momentous. It may be hard to remember, but the software giant's rule over the industry seemed unshakeable when the settlement was signed. And there was much consternation among rivals over the milquetoast nature of the deal, calling for some regulatory oversight but no structural change to Microsoft's business.
That was largely because the Clinton administration brought the suit, hoping to apply antitrust law to emerging digital markets. But the case dragged on into the Bush administration. And it had little interest in increasing government intervention.
"Once Bush won the election, the steam came out of the case," said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor of antitrust law at the University of Iowa College of Law.
Rivals complained at the time that the case would do little to stop Microsoft's march into new markets, using its Windows hegemony. Seen as little more than a slap on the wrist, the consent decree gave computer makers new freedom to include software from Microsoft rivals on PCs and prohibited Microsoft from retaliating when they did feature non-Microsoft technology. It also required Microsoft to disclose more information about Windows so that rivals could develop programs to work smoothly with the operating system.
And while Microsoft is no longer the dominant force it was a decade ago, it would be mistake to credit the consent decree. "I don't think the settlement we ended up with changed much," Hovenkamp said.
That change has come through market forces, not regulatory ones. The tides in technology have shifted, with companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook gaining mindshare and market share in the intervening years.
Just take a look at browsers. Microsoft's obliterating Netscape's Navigator browser with anticompetitive behavior is what triggered the lawsuit. When Microsoft signed the consent decree, it so thoroughly dominated the browser market that it was hard to imagine surfing the Web with anything other than Internet Explorer. It accounted for 95 percent of the market.
No more. In April, according to NetApplications, Internet Explorer's share of the global browser market sat at 55.1 percent, Mozilla's Firefox accounted for 21.6 percent, Google's Chrome had 11.9 percent of the market, and Apple's Safari held 7.2 percent.




cnet.com