Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Happened to Microsoft's Monopoly?

Copyright, The New York Times Company

As Apple introduces a range of new products, it is worth remembering that there is no such thing as a monopoly in the computer industry.

Fourteen years ago, the Justice Department accused Microsoft of maintaining a monopoly in personal-computer operating systems and expressed concern that Microsoft would extend that monopoly.

At the time, 90 to 95 percent of personal computers powered by Intel processors were running a Microsoft operating system. Some analysts said that this left PC owners little choice, and that Microsoft was preventing the marketplace from functioning well. Others suggested that the market was functioning quite well and that so many PCs ran a Microsoft operating system because of the combination of low price, desirable features and networking advantages.

Two years later, a federal district judge agreed with Department of Justice and ordered Microsoft to be broken into several technology companies – a ruling later vacated by a higher court.

Watching Apple introduce some amazing products last week, including laptops (which have been running Intel processors for several years now) and operating systems for mobile and desktop devices, it is difficult to imagine that the Justice Department once thought that, without government intervention, consumer choices would be significantly limited by Microsoft.

Interestingly, on Tuesday, Microsoft announced that it was introducing a tablet, the Surface, that will compete in the strong and growing market dominated by Apple’s iPad. Market forces are clearly working to give consumers choices in the market.

The first chart below shows Apple’s share price as a ratio of Microsoft’s, both on a monthly basis and adjusted for dividends and splits. The ratio is normalized to one in June 1998, when Justice filed its antitrust suit. I have indicated some of the interesting market events that began a significant movement of customers away from Microsoft and toward Apple: the introduction of a Windows-compatible iPod, the opening of the iTunes store and the introduction of the iPhone (both a phone and a pocket-sized personal computer, running an operating system written by Apple).

Now, relative to Microsoft’s share value, Apple share values have increased almost 60 times, largely because of Apple’s new products and the market’s anticipation of its future products. This next chart from shows some of that history by quantifying the number of number of personal computers shipped in each year since 1975.

The Rise and Fall of Personal Computing

Growth of computing platforms, in thousands of units shipped per year. Scale at left is logarithmic.Asymco.comGrowth of computing platforms, in thousands of units shipped per year. Scale at left is logarithmic.

The chart shows PCs (which here means I.B.M.-compatible lineage, primarily running a Microsoft operating system) overtaking other personal-computing machines in the mid-1980s. However, in the mid-2000s Macintosh and iPhone shipments took off, soon followed by iPads and Androids. By 2011, PCs were less than half of all shipments.

In the computer industry at least, current market shares are no guarantee of future success. What might appear to be monopolies are frequently and decisively broken by innovative competitors rather than antitrust regulators.


Ian Random said...

Anti-trust is so silly in general. Given enough time someone somewhere will think of a better mousetrap and knock you off the hill. Rail was so dominant, but today they have to subsidize it. I once had an IBM brand computer, but everything I have now is Taiwanese. The list goes on and on. We Google now, not Yahoo. There is some talk that Amazon might be blurring the line between local retailer and mail order. There are monopolies that will never be prosecuted like inefficient light water reactor makers preventing molten salt reactors from becoming reality.

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