Jason Snell on US v. Apple

Jason Snell, writing at Six Colors, with a first take I found myself nodding my head in agreement with throughout:

For me, the most unexpected part of the document was the DoJ’s explanation that Apple’s success as a company largely stems from… the DoJ itself. It points out that Apple’s resurgence early in this century was due to the release of the iPod, which only became a hit when it arrived on Windows. The DoJ argues that the iPod’s presence on Windows was only due to Microsoft being under a consent decree from the DoJ for monopolistic behavior.

I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Microsoft consent decree to weigh in on the idea that an unconstrained Microsoft would have made it impossible for Apple to make the iPod compatible with Windows. It’s a pretty big hypothetical, and I’m skeptical, but I’m impressed that the DoJ would try to place its current case within the larger DoJ Connected Universe.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to see that this is a nonsensical claim. Microsoft played all sorts of hardball with Windows’s licensing to PC makers back in the 1990s, but nothing they did would have ever stopped Apple from making iTunes for Windows and allowing iTunes for Windows to manage an iPod connected over USB. That’s one thing Windows (and DOS before it) always was: open to third-party software, and open to connected peripherals. iTunes, to my recollection, was always software that users downloaded and installed themselves. iTunes was not pre-installed on PCs and thus subject to Microsoft’s licensing shenanigans (e.g. the way Microsoft used licensing discounts to discourage PC makers from shipping computers with Netscape pre-installed). At a technical level I don’t even see how Microsoft could have hindered iTunes or the iPod even if they had wanted to.

[Update: I forgot about the 2004 HP-iPod deal, which included pre-installing iTunes on HP PCs, but the larger point stands.]

What strikes me most about this document is that people… like using the iPhone? This suit (joined by 16 other attorneys general, mostly of blue states) has a political element to it, in the sense of trying to send a message that your government is looking out for your rights and protecting you from big, bad tech companies.

What happens when that collides with a product that has extremely high customer satisfaction ratings? Those of us in the know are well aware of all the ways that Apple plays hardball, and understand that the company is so powerful that really the only way it will be convinced to change its ways is under threat of government intervention. But will American iPhone users feel like the government is on their side, in taking on an American tech giant that makes a product they actually enjoy using?

I wonder very much about this too. The biggest US antitrust case in my lifetime was the breakup of Ma Bell, a.k.a. AT&T Classic. The “phone company” was universally reviled at the time, if only for the exorbitant long-distance phone call rates they charged. Ma Bell was both unpopular and inarguably a monopoly — the Bell system was the only way to place telephone calls.

I think the public, by and large, was ambivalent about Microsoft’s monopoly abuse in the 1990s. But Apple is popular, the iPhone in particular. And many of the complaints lodged by the DOJ regarding the iPhone are for the very things that make it popular.

Thursday, 21 March 2024