Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Antitrust
United States v. Microsoft Corp., 253 F.3d 34 (D.C. Cir. 2001) was the first major antitrust case of the digital age. At its conclusion, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared that Microsoft had violated the Sherman Act by monopolizing the U.S. market for “Intel-compatible” computer operating systems (see, e.g., here).
One of the key allegations against Microsoft was that it had restrained trade in web-browsing software by bundling Internet Explorer (IE) with its Windows 95 operating software, the first truly successful version of its PC operating system. IE had pride of place on desktop screens, and, horror of horrors, was included in Windows software at no extra charge. Microsoft’s business practices especially aggrieved James Barksdale, Netscape Corp.’s CEO, whose Navigator was at the time IE’s chief web-browsing rival. Barksdale was in fact a key player in convincing the Justice Department to sue Microsoft after the Federal Trade Commission twice failed to issue a complaint against Bill Gates and company.
Fast forward to 2022. A headline on June 15 announced that “Microsoft Shuts Down Internet Explorer after 27 Years.” The company no longer will support clunky IE, consigning the browser and its users to the dustbin of history. Once-dominant IE has been displaced by Google Chrome, Firefox’s Mozilla and a handful of other web browsing options.
That is how competitive markets operate even in so-called network industries, where today’s dominant company cannot expect to hold onto its position forever. Success invites Schumpeterian creative destruction. Marketplaces do not stand still and no one, including “expert” antitrust law enforcers, possibly can foresee the directions in which they will evolve.
The Department of Justice and Judge Jackson owe apologies to taxpayers and computer users for wasting their time and money tilting at a windmill.