What's a monopoly to do?

During a discussion with a source close to the AMD v Intel antitrust lawsuit, I heard something that really grabbed my attention. AMD, he said, isn't suing Intel because Intel is a monopoly; it's suing Intel for abusing its monopoly powers to maintain its control of the market. I knew that a distinction of that kind existed, though I'm no lawyer. Still, I had never heard it put so succinctly.

The less thoughtful among those inclined towards AMD portray Intel as a beastly megacorporation drunk with wealth and success that deserves to be taken down a peg. AMD's going to storm the castle walls, do or die, so three cheers for the underdog!

It's a pity that view has gotten so much visibility because pundits are mistaking this antitrust case as an effort by AMD to rouse the rabble against the company that's gotten too big.

Those inclined toward Intel tend to portray AMD as a feeble grower of sour grapes, a company with some smart technology that was, in the end, unable to capture the minds and dollars of the PC market during a fair fight. In capitalism, as in nature, there must be winners and losers, diners and dinners.

There's no crying in business, and we can't champion those who run to court to protest whenever the market decides against them.

AMD isn't suing Intel for being too big, too profitable, or too stingy to share its wealth. I'm relieved that we're enjoying a respite from the '90s-era knee-jerk disdain for tech companies judged too large or too successful. The arbiters of "too" are always unable to quantify their criteria, but they know it when they see it. And when they see it, these judges of corporate proportionality set about making things right by trashing the player that, according to the secret formula, has more than it deserves.

Microsoft will always be the epitome of the megacorporate pincushion. Every time a Windows or Internet Explorer security hole was found or a Microsoft exec said something stupid, it was flogged as yet another reason for right-thinking people to wish Microsoft failure or harm.

A company or individual who has attained a certain level of success risks having sloppiness and poor decisions reframed as malicious deeds. I'd have no empathy for AMD if it were using the courts to compensate it for ending up with too little pie.

I do have empathy for AMD precisely because AMD isn't suing Intel for being too big, too successful, or too wily a competitor. The question for the court and, if it's not settled before trial, a jury is whether Intel misused the monopoly powers it has acquired to make sure that it maintains its lead. Did Intel come by its wealth and power earnestly? Is Intel in the leadership position in x86 CPUs through dirty dealing? That's worthwhile fodder for discussion, but in AMD v Intel, Intel's size and success aren't the issue. The question at issue is much easier to define and decide: did Intel break the law trying to hang onto its control of the PC processor market?

If you picture AMD as a self-appointed white knight tilting against the haughty and deep-pocketed, seeking court-ordered redistribution of wealth, you'll find its arguments very confusing. If Intel is to be taken down a peg for the sake of it, it won't be at AMD's hand.

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