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Five years after trial, can M$ stand up to Google?

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What I remember most about the Microsoft antitrust trial that I covered for Fortune magazine was how momentous it felt - surely, the antitrust trial of the century. The rest of Washington was obsessed with Monica Lewinsky. Not us. We pored through e-mail messages suggesting that Microsoft had wanted to "cut off Netscape's air supply"- Microsoft's efforts to crush Netscape was at the heart of the case - and wondered if U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson would have the nerve to break the giant in half.

As it turns out, he did have the nerve. But he made several fatal mistakes - including talking secretly to the news media - and the District of Columbia Circuit, while upholding his finding that Microsoft had abused its monopoly power, took the case out of his hands and sent it to another judge. Once the Bush administration took power, the new Justice Department quickly settled on terms largely favorable to the company.

Here we are five years later, and the technology landscape is drastically transformed. Google, founded just as the trial was getting under way, is now widely (and correctly) viewed as the most serious threat to Microsoft's desktop hegemony since Netscape. And Linux, the open-source operating system, has made real inroads in the server market that Microsoft had counted on for growth.

Among competitors, Microsoft is still respected but not feared the way it used to be. It has become a sluggish, bureaucratic company that, for instance, is going to be at least a year late with a new operating system, called Longhorn, that the world needs to make computing more secure. Its stock has not moved in years.

On the other hand, Microsoft still has the same two powerful desktop monopolies it had before the antitrust trial: the Windows operating system and the Office suite of applications.

That now makes me wonder: When you come right down to it, did the antitrust trial of the century make a whit of difference?

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