Lessons learned from Microsoft's ghosts of antitrust past: Step up, Facebook

I see the world + its govt are taking an interest in you. Would you like some help with that?

Microsoft's president and chief legal officer Brad Smith has issued a spectral antitrust warning from history for Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Smith also blamed the software company's antitrust battles for Microsoft's having missed the search, mobile and app-store trains.

To miss one technology wave may be regarded as misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness. Losing three? Apparently the result of lawyers.

In the wide-ranging interview at the Code Conference, Smith had two lessons from the Windows antitrust trauma for Zuckerberg and his ilk. The first was obvious:

If you create technology that changes the world, the world is going to want to govern you, it's going to want in some measure to regulate you and you have to come to terms with that ... and step up to the responsibilities that the world wants you to assume.

The second tip was a tad more personal:

"You have to develop the ability to look in the mirror and see yourself ... the way other people see you and guess what? They don't think you're quite as good-looking as you thought you were..."

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Bill Gates' performance in the antitrust court was also alluded to – and it was one from which Zuckerberg undoubtedly has learned. Smith also noted approvingly that, unlike the Microsoft of 1998, Zuckerberg has said he understood that "regulation may be in order".

The Microsoft of 20 years ago was certainly a good deal less cuddly than the caring, sharing cloudy behemoth of today, with alleged business practices that would make even Gordon Gekko say "steady on, chaps".

However, one outcome of the trial, according to Smith, was senior management spending a little too much time on preparing for depositions and not enough on strategy, leading to Microsoft missing the web search train, among others.

Responding to questions from the audience, Smith went on to call out the regulations imposed on the software giant, reflecting ruefully that Microsoft being forced to ensure that competing browsers could potentially be more popular than the in-house offering on Windows have led to Chrome's dominance.

A cynic might suggest that Internet Explorer being so universally disliked (even Microsoft is trying to kill the thing off with Edge) was arguably a bigger factor.

Smith went on to touch on Microsoft's difficulties in populating its moribund application store, using a curious metaphor to again point the finger of blame at least partially at the results of the antitrust trial:

The reality is once you make your bed, and the regulator's forced you to keep lying in it, you may look across at the hotel across the street and say: 'Wow! You know I wish we could design our rooms that way' ... and you don't necessarily have that opportunity.

To stretch the metaphor to breaking point, one could also argue that continually changing the shape of door frames and the voltage of the power outlets didn't help furnish Microsoft's empty hotel rooms either.

Smith, a 25-year Microsoft veteran, also discussed the politically sensitive topic of immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme (which allows for kids who entered the States illegally to obtain protection from being deported), seeing the issue as key to the success for the US tech sector.

He went on to list diversity as a fundamental challenge for the industry as a whole, proudly pointing to the fact that just over 50 per cent of Microsoft lawyers are women and saying "never take the percentage of women in the profession as your own ceiling".

A number of ex-Redmond employees might disagree. ®

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