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In antitrust we trust

If the Microsoft antitrust trial ends with a settlement that won't change Microsoft's business practices, has the Justice Department's four-year battle been a monumental waste of time and money? One trial watcher and writer says to the contrary: IT has benefited from it.

LOS ANGELES -- What does the 112 year-old Sherman Antitrust Act have in common with the best technologies?

Reliability and scalability. Only this kind of scalability scales time, not to the needs of the enterprise.

The antitrust trial against Microsoft proved that an old law still holds water in a new economy, according to court junkie John Heilemann, who has written a book about Redmond's battle with Washington, "Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era."

During his keynote speech at Gartner's "Windows: Nothing But .NET?" conference here, Heilemann asked a poignant question: Has the trial been worth the tribulations?

That's a legitimate question. Microsoft's competitors, as well as Wall Street analysts, claim the settlement on the table won't be the Ritalin prescription that changes Microsoft's behavior, because it only addresses past monopoly abuses ?- it doesn't really govern how Redmond will do business in the future, although the judge in the case is considering broader remedies that could affect the future releases of products.

So if the settlement proposal becomes official, which Heilemann predicts, and the "new Microsoft" is actually the same as the old Microsoft, what good has come from this epic known as "U.S. versus MS," other than giving legions of lawyers something to do for the last four years?

Plenty of good, said Heilemann. Calling it a waste of time is, well, a waste of time.

He pointed out how the trial has cost Microsoft truckloads of cash and millions of man hours, not to mention less tangible losses like morale, reputation, customer respect and trust. It's tainted the company with the scarlet "M" -- "monopolist" -- which no other company has to prove anymore. And it has galvanized Microsoft's rivals and emboldened citizens and corporations alike to drag the company to court, knowing "the Beast" is weary of more litigation and likely more willing to settle.

Would Bill and company want to go through all this again? Probably not. Has Microsoft learned a lesson from all this? Probably so ?- at the very least Microsoft has learned the depths of Uncle Sam's pockets are only matched by the depths of his patience and tenacity.

The suit has also shown other high-tech companies the cost of crossing the line. You can bet Sun, Oracle, BEA and other shakers in Silicon Valley know what their limits are, and what could happen should they decide if monopoly is good enough for Microsoft, it's good enough for them.

Heilemann also said the trial has shown that old antitrust laws do in fact apply to the new economy in general and the IT sector in particular. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a monopoly in the 21st century. And yes, The Sherman Antitrust Act, passed in 1890 when the dry cell battery was all the technological rage, still has teeth, unlike most 112 year-olds, and can scale across time like a Sherman tank to take bites out of modern business.


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