Two Microsofts: Mulling an alternate reality

What would the technology world look like today if the 2000 ruling by the recently deceased Thomas Penfield Jackson -- that Microsoft be broken into two companies -- had been upheld?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Thomas Penfield Jackson has died. The former U.S. District court judge ruled in 2000 that Microsoft was a monopoly that should be broken up into two companies. This part of his decision was over-turned, but what might have happened had the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his decision to break up Microsoft?

Imagine that there were two Microsofts. It's easy if you try--and the late Thomas Penfield Jackson did try.

Jackson took this approach because he couldn't stand Microsoft. The irony is that many experts over the years believe that had Jackson been allowed to break the company up into "Baby Bills," Microsoft actually would have done better.

Certainly, Microsoft in the last few years has been on a decline and there have been frequent calls to break the company up into more agile, responsive divisions. These plans usually involved dividing it into a desktop and a server side. That wasn't what Jackson had in mind. 

Jackson's plan would have led to two Microsofts. Let's call them Microsoft Blue, which would have stayed in operating systems business and, Microsoft Red, which would have retained Microsoft's software programs and products such as Outlook, Internet Explorer, Office, and the Microsoft Network (MSN).

In this alternative reality, Blue would have been forced to be more efficient. I doubt we would have seen operating system flops such as Vista and Windows 8. Blue couldn't afford such blunders. They would have to have listened to their customers more closely.

At the same time, since Blue's entire focus would have been on operating systems, Blue would have been more innovative and more aggressive about supporting its new inventions. So, instead of Apple creating the mass-market tablet with the iPad in April 2010, perhaps Blue would have started it with the Haiku. In the real world of tablets, Microsoft lags far behind Google's Android and Apple's iPad.

On the desktop Blue would probably still dominate, but Apple with Mac OS X probably would have a larger market share, say low double digits. I suspect other alternatives, such as Ubuntu Linux, would also have a bigger share of the market, say two or three Linux distributions with single digit marker-shares. Or, perhaps Red Hat could have gained a significant business desktop market share with Red Hat Enterprise Desktop. 

I think Red would have had a more difficult path. Blocked from working hand-in-glove with Blue, programs like Microsoft Office would have had a far harder time remaining the default office application. Software such as Lotus SmartSuite, OpenOffice, and WordPerfect would have had a real shot at remaining viable office programs. 

IE, on the other hand, had already beaten Netscape into the ground by the time the courts ruled against Microsoft. I'm sure IE  would have continued to be the dominant Web browser. Netscape might have made able to stage a comeback. Had it done so, though, Firefox -- which was built from Netscape's code -- might not exist at all. 

Without Firefox to spur Web browser innovation, I find it very hard to see how the Web browser wars for the last ten years would have worked out. There would have been others, but instead of Firefox and Chrome being IE's main contenders, perhaps it would have been Opera and Safari. 

Still, Red would have had  a far harder time of it on the desktop since it could no longer be developed in sync with Windows. Red would have had to work harder on back-office programs and servers. As it happens, I've long thought that Microsoft produced far better back-end products than end-user programs so I'm not sure how much better they could have done. I suspect that they would have been more open to alternatives.

What do I mean by that? Well, today, Microsoft has finally gotten more open-source friendly than it would have.

For example, on Azure, its cloud platform, you can run Ubuntu, CentOS, and SUSE Linux. It took years, but they're in there. But, Red might well have embraced Linux and open-source software far earlier. For example, I could easily imagine Active Directory being made available as a service on Linux by as early as 2003. After that, who knows...

Like Blue, Red would also been forced to be more innovative. Perhaps instead of being a follower in cloud and search technologies, Microsoft might have been a leader.

Presuming that Gates and Ballmer would have stayed with Windows and Microsoft Blue, perhaps Red would have been more forceful with Internet and Web innovations and acquisitions. Say, for example, that Red would have brought Yahoo. In this Mirror, Mirror world, the stumbling blocks that tripped this deal would no longer exist.

So, in this other world some sample ZDNet headlines for June 2013 might read:

Windows 8's great reviews leads it to commanding lead over latest Mac OS X
Torvalds introduces Microsoft Red Linux Server
Microsoft Red Web Services Cloud beats Amazon again
Microhoo strong number two in Web search
New Apple iPad almost as good as MSFT Blue Haiku 5

I find it all too easy to see a world where Microsoft would actually have been better off if Gates and friends had simply let the company be broken up into more manageable and agile companies than the stumbling dinosaur it is today.

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