According to a report in the "New York Times" on Sunday, Internet search giant Google has levied an antitrust charge against Microsoft, but the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has declined to pursue the case. The report is notable for several reasons. First, as noted by the "New York Times," the DOJ has clearly changed its tune regarding Microsoft antitrust problems: Now, the agency is defending, not pursuing, the software giant. Second, as also noted by the "New York Times," the DOJ and the Federal District Court overseeing Microsoft's ongoing antitrust consent decree, have gone so far as to keep this most recent complaint a secret. But the third and most important point seems to be completely lost on the "New York Times": Google's charge is frivolous, baseless, and hypocritical.
Here's what's happening: In the build-up to Windows Vista last year, several companies, including Google, levied antitrust charges at Microsoft in the United States, the European Union, and other regions, hoping to force Microsoft to change various aspects of the then-upcoming OS. Microsoft actually made several concessions without requiring antitrust officials to step in. And although Microsoft didn't go to the full length that Google had demanded, the software giant did make changes to the way that its Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 Web browser handles search engines.
Apparently, that wasn't Google's only complaint about Vista. According to the "New York Times" report, Google separately and secretly complained to antitrust officials that Vista's integrated search feature actually caused Google's desktop search product to perform more slowly. The charge, in short, is that Microsoft specifically designed Vista to discourage users from using Google's (suddenly redundant) desktop search product. (Heads-up for history fans: Microsoft announced its plans to add instant desktop search to Vista well before Google ever announced or released a desktop search product of its own.)
This charge raises some interesting problems. First, why did the DOJ and Federal District Court keep this allegation a secret? Second, the "New York Times" reports that the DOJ actually tried to coerce various US states into ignoring Google's allegation, as it was doing, in a sharp turnaround of its previous policy toward Microsoft. Now, prosecutors from several US states say that they will pursue Google's accusation and are asking the DOJ to join them.
They needn't bother: Google's complaint is baseless. To discover why, let's consider how the Microsoft of today is sharply different than the recalcitrant and abusive monopolist that the DOJ first dragged into court several years ago. Back then, Microsoft was found to have illegally changed Windows to harm a would-be competitor, Netscape. That allegation had teeth: Microsoft saw Netscape as an up-and-coming challenger, and although the company at the time posed no immediate risk to Microsoft or Windows, internal Microsoft documentation proved that the software giant saw the impending risk if users adopted the Web, rather than Windows, as the underlying computing platform.
Without really understanding the situation today, one might attempt to draw some comparisons between the Netscape of 1996 and the Google of 2007. After all, both companies create Internet-based products and compete with Microsoft. However, Google is an Internet powerhouse and commands a growing monopoly of its own: The company currently owns about 65 percent of all Internet searches, compared to a lowly 8.46 percent for Microsoft. And its market share is growing steadily, month by month, as its competitors' shares fall, month by month. In fact, one might argue that Google is attempting to extend its own budding monopoly to the PC desktop. Regardless, it's only a matter of time before Google's dominance of the Internet is as vast and secure as Microsoft's command of the desktop. And Google will achieve that in a small fraction of the time it took Microsoft. Unlike Netscape, Google is a company that has the resources to stand toe-to-toe with Microsoft.
If Microsoft were really trying to keep a struggling up-and-coming competitor on the ropes, and was doing so in an illegal fashion, I'd be the first to decry that behavior. Indeed, long-time readers will note that I believed (and still believe) that Microsoft should have been split into two or more companies as a result of its antitrust abuses a decade ago. But today, Microsoft is a different place, and generally behaves in a much more reasonable and competitive fashion. Arguably, the Microsoft of today has done as much to appease Google as the Microsoft of a decade ago did to harm Netscape. Just giving Google's complaint the time of day is a ridiculous waste of time and taxpayers' money: It is a frivolous allegation.
Ultimately, the only controversy here is that the DOJ sought to keep this charge secret. The agency should have simply revealed the charge and then forgotten it entirely. Maybe it's time to investigate the DOJ, but there's certainly no reason to investigate Microsoft again. I'd go so far as to say that we'll soon have more excuses to investigate Google than Microsoft, given its vast dominance, influence, and ongoing privacy abuses. It's only a matter of time.