Intel vs. Microsoft and Antitrust: Lessons Learned (the Hard Way)

Rob Enderle

As we exited last decade, Microsoft was under fire from the Department of Justice and took a highly combative stance that it initially carried over into its dealings with the European Union. After getting heavily pounded and fined, it shifted tactics and recently settled with the EU, reducing substantially its long-term risk. At this same time, Intel went down a different path to a similar place by also taking a combative stance, being massively fined in the EU and now facing the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which appears to be coming after it with a can opener.


Let's contrast the two companies and see if we can pull out some best practices.


Microsoft and Putting on Tennis Shoes

There is an old joke about two guys being chased by a bear. One stops and puts on tennis shoes and the other guy stops and says, "What are you doing? You'll never outrun the bear." The guy putting on the shoes responds, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."


Governments are limited in resources, but once they target an individual or company, they can be very focused. You can get away with a lot as long as you don't reach the top of the government's list of companies that need corrective action.


For a long time both Intel and Microsoft missed the cut, by design during Andy Grove's reign at the helm (you get this from his book "Only the Paranoid Survive") and it would appear largely by accident during Bill Gates'. Gates' testimony during the DOJ trial still gives me (and likely him as well) shivers.


It took awhile, but Microsoft this decade finally, after being chewed up by a lot of government bears, figured out that being the slow, combative runner wasn't doing the company any good and switched to becoming the most agreeable company on the planet. In the second half of the decade, it moved aggressively toward driving interoperation and providing competitors with needed hooks into Microsoft's offerings. Financially it is vastly better off than it was while being combative. And, in the United States, its top competitor Google is now a better target.


This was very well timed because the current U.S. administration is very pro-competition and is looking to pound on any company that appears to be a monopoly. Typically Microsoft would make the short list. Given the administration's stated target industries are telecommunications and technology, this was a wise move.


The EU has since moved to making Oracle's life miserable (at least until recently) in a case of poetic justice, since Oracle and Sun helped motivate the EU into looking at U.S. tech companies and Microsoft. This showcases the danger of getting government help: Once government starts doing stuff like this and develop a competency, the next company on its list might be you.


Intel Missed the Trend

With the U.S. administration taking a hard look at Intel's industry and AMD tied to a major plant going up in the New York area, the likelihood that Intel was going to be made into an example was very high. When the New York attorney general jumped on this bandwagon, it was a huge red flag that things were going to get worse. Intel settled the lawsuit with AMD and apparently moved to settle with the FTC, but started to late.


The problem is there was no better poster child for the FTC's new high-profile effort than Intel. This week the negotiations between the FTC and Intel broke down. This doesn't reduce Intel's need to settle and switching back to a more combative stance, like Microsoft did several times with the EU, likely isn't going to work better for Intel. Things may very well now get worse unless Intel can find a way to settle.


Wrapping Up: Be Humble and Recognize the Power in Government

I don't see any advantage to being combative in the media with government agencies. You can certainly say you disagree, but you don't have to imply the governing body is stupid, and you certainly shouldn't act as if you will rebel against this authority. Microsoft, eventually, took what the EU and DOJ wanted done and made it into a competitive edge. By doing so, it largely took a lot of the energy out of Linux (a competing offering that was being heavily fueled by an anti-Microsoft sentiment) and Microsoft is financially stronger than when the government fights peaked.


The lesson from both companies is to be humble, be respectful, and find a way to settle out of this before the action becomes institutionalized and staffed. Intel waited too long to settle, and in the face of what was clearly going to be an aggressive government agency, made itself too attractive as an example for a government looking to make a point. Getting out now will be much more difficult.


Remember the story about the bear and the shoes with one caveat: It might be even wiser to not piss the bear off in the first place. Certainly mooning him, calling him stupid, or slapping him in the face won't end well, because he's a bear. Governments are like that.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 17, 2009 2:58 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says:

Instead of trying to figure out when to give in to government regulators, or how to stay under the radar just long enough, maybe companies should not be doing things they should not be doing. Why break the law when you are a monopoly and/or a market leader? Taking huge legal risks for a few percentage points in market share is no way to run a business.

Dec 17, 2009 4:01 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

And thus my "don't piss the bear off in the first place" comment.  But I agree, excessive focus on a competitor tends to always end badly.


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