Microsoft struggles against monopoly

Microsoft's been a busy little monopoly lately. Sorry, I shouldn't be so loose with my tongue: there's no way Microsoft is a little monopoly; but a big one it certainly is.

Microsoft's been a busy little monopoly lately. Sorry, I shouldn't be so loose with my tongue: there's no way Microsoft is a little monopoly; but a big one it certainly is. I know it's not very polite referring to it as a monopoly but until a court overturns the verdict in the US Department of Justice's antitrust suit, calling it such is too tempting to pass up. And, of course, it's true – for now. To be branded a monopolist requires a company to be so dominant that it can run the market to suit its profiteering ends. Another way to earn the label is to be so successful that all your competitors are forced out of business. Having been found guilty of the former, Microsoft is anxious not to let the latter happen, opening it up to a further round of accusations. So it's being busy on a number of fronts, trying to clear its name in court and getting involved in what would once have been unimaginable ventures with former rivals to demonstrate that it wants to work with them, not wipe them off the planet. Its investment in lawyers might already have paid off, with observers saying a break-up of the company -- the sentence handed down by the antitrust trial judge – is beginning to look unlikely now that Microsoft has successfully slowed down the appeal process. Time favours a monopolist, so the theory runs, since markets are forever changing: a cleverly executed alliance could turn today's monopoly into tomorrow's duopoly (just look at what the small fry of the New Zealand telecomms market are saying about a newly close Telecom and Clear); alternatively, today's source of monopoly profits – operating systems, say – might completely dry up tomorrow if superseded by some new technology. Cause for optimism, then, on the legal front. That might evaporate, of course, if Microsoft's competitors, on their last legs from years of unequal struggle, were allowed to pass away, leaving it no other software companies to point to as evidence of a healthy market. But Microsoft is a skilled physician, bringing the patients round just before they pop off. Apple was revived on its death bed three years ago with an injection of $US150 million and a promise to develop Office for the Mac for five years. (It didn't stop Apple from playing a key part in the antitrust suit, mind you.) The release of a new version of Mac Office last week was proof of Microsoft's commitment to the Mac OS, the company claimed. For those who find that hard to swallow, Microsoft's latest resuscitation effort will be even tougher to accept. This month it has paid $US135 million for 25% of Corel, the loss-making Canadian company whose WordPerfect Office was locked in a futile battle with Microsoft Office. The pair say Corel's developers will be set to work on Microsoft's much-ballyhooed .NET platform. It makes one wonder how .NET was going to be brought to life before the Corel programmers happily fell into Microsoft's lap. It seems to me the much more believable explanation for Microsoft's move is the need to keep Corel afloat. During the past two years much of Corel's efforts have been put behind Linux, the open source operating system which excites interest as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows. Given Microsoft's willingness to support the Mac OS through ongoing development of Office for that platform, might this mean a version of Office for Linux? Slim chance. Commitment by Microsoft to the no longer threatening Mac OS is one thing, but helping Linux to undermine the Windows monopoly is another.

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