The new IBM

What, you were expecting that maybe Microsoft Corp. would be drawn and quartered? That wasn't going to happen. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly closed a few loopholes, but the settlement she OK'd on Nov. 1 was pretty much what Microsoft, the U.S. Department of Justice and nine states had agreed on. Judges like settlements. So do appeals courts. Unless something smells especially awful, settlements get OK'd so cases can be closed.

So, has Microsoft scored a big win, as its foes are screaming? Not really. Microsoft has just been confirmed as the new IBM Corp. - complete with an antitrust noose around its neck.

Let's take a lesson from history. Sure, some anti-Microsoft folks really did believe, at this late date, that Microsoft might still be broken up. But that was wishful thinking. A stripped-down Windows was a possibility, but unlikely. Like I said, appeals courts like settlements. Just ask Stanley Sporkin.

Remember Judge Sporkin? He threw out the original Microsoft/Justice Department antitrust settlement in 1995 because he thought it wasn't tough enough. An appeals court reinstated it, and everyone complained that the agreement was toothless and Microsoft was getting off scot-free. A judge named Thomas Penfield Jackson finally signed off on the deal.

Two years later, that "toothless" agreement landed Microsoft back in Judge Jackson's court. The year after that, Microsoft was hit with the full-fledged antitrust suit that now has it under court supervision for the next five to seven years as a convicted monopolist.

That's how antitrust cases work. There's no big bang, no high-profile execution -- just a long, slow tightening of the noose.

You say that doesn't help the companies that get crushed by the monopolist? No, it doesn't. But that's nothing new. Remember, monopolist IBM rolled over General Electric Co., RCA Corp., Honeywell International Inc., Control Data, Burroughs, Sperry, NCR Corp., Amdahl Corp. and many smaller mainframe vendors on the way to becoming the original 800-pound gorilla in IT.

The Justice Department started tightening the antitrust noose on IBM way back in 1932. But what finally knocked Big Blue out of the top spot -- and actually had IBM on the ropes by 1992 -- was a new technology called desktop computing, where IBM's mainframe monopoly power was irrelevant. Hobbled by antitrust consent agreements and ongoing lawsuits, IBM was outflanked by competitors that cloned its PC hardware and the company that owned the operating system -- a nimble little upstart from Redmond, Wash., named Microsoft.

Now Microsoft, the new IBM, has its own antitrust noose. Sure, it'll get tighter. In 50 or 60 years, it may slow down Microsoft enough for a competitor to put it on the ropes, too.

So if you're counting on antitrust enforcement to get rid of your current 800-pound gorilla, you'd better be very patient.

Or you could learn from history.

Nobody knocked out IBM by building a better mainframe. Microsoft and rival PC makers did it by making IBM's monopoly irrelevant. They changed the rules, the technology and the business model.

You want to beat Microsoft's monopoly? You'll have to make it irrelevant. If you're a vendor, maybe that means trying new price points that Microsoft is afraid to touch. Or new technologies that will make Windows irrelevant. Or a new business model, like open source.

If you're an IT shop, it probably means looking hard at alternatives you've never considered before -- thinking outside the conventional IT box, maybe way outside it, to find new ways of making users more productive and effective.

Whether you're a vendor or user, that's the only way to get that 800-pound gorilla off your back.

Because the antitrust noose around its neck may slow it down a little. But if you want to draw and quarter Microsoft, you'll have to do it yourself.

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