‘Crush Them’: An Oral History of the Lawsuit That Upended Silicon Valley
Twenty years ago, Microsoft tried to eliminate its competition in the race for the internet's future. The government had other ideas.
by Victor Luckerson via The Ringer on May 18, 2018
Giants always fall, eventually. Microsoft may have simply been too bloated by the turn of the century to outflank more nimble competitors like Google and Apple. But there’s still considerable debate about whether it was the government lawsuit that nudged the company into an abyss of late-to-the-party products such as the Zune MP3 player and the Bing search engine. Microsoft never would have thought of these ideas first, but absent government intervention, it might have devised ways to eliminate the companies that did. “Because of antitrust enforcement, that’s why we have Google,” says Gary Reback, a well-connected antitrust lawyer who represented Netscape in the ’90s. “There is no other reason.”
And yet it’s only because Google has become so Microsoft-like in its dominance that the 20-year-old case still resonates. (Amazon and Facebook have also been accused of monopolistic tendencies.) In a world where a handful of companies control much more of our data than Windows 95 ever did, it’s an open question how much this famous case really accomplished. Our current tech overlords may be doomed to repeat the transgressions of the Microsoft era—some antitrust watchers believe they already have. “One of my theories about antitrust is it goes in cycles,” says Stephen Houck, one of the government lawyers who took the deposition of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. “Microsoft or some other tech company gets very successful, they make a lot of money, and they tend to get arrogant and think they know more than the government.”
Just how similar were Microsoft’s actions two decades ago to what’s going on today? And how critical was the government’s lawsuit to unseating Microsoft from its perch of power to make room for a new crop of innovators? On the 20th anniversary of the filing of the Justice Department’s suit, we asked the lawyers who tried the case, the competitors who found themselves under Microsoft’s heel, and the journalists tasked with making sense of it all to recount tech’s most important legal battle, in their own words.