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  4. The US settled with Microsoft in 2000, paving the way for Apple's rise. Now, Apple's in similar legal crosshairs.

The US settled with Microsoft in 2000, paving the way for Apple's rise. Now, Apple's in similar legal crosshairs.

Meghan Morris   

The US settled with Microsoft in 2000, paving the way for Apple's rise. Now, Apple's in similar legal crosshairs.
  • Prosecutors filed a new antitrust case against Apple, and Microsoft features in it prominently.
  • Microsoft settled a blockbuster antitrust case in 2001. The DOJ said it paved the way for Apple's rise.

Prosecutors suing Apple in a major new antitrust case said the granddaddy of tech antitrust lawsuits — the US' 1998 case against Microsoft — gave Apple the space to grow and eventually dominate the tech industry.

The Microsoft case will likely figure prominently in the government's arguments against Apple, both in legal precedent and, already, in prosecutors' explanation of Apple's transition from computers to tech ruler.

But the Microsoft case was far from straightforward. Government agencies investigated and even settled with the company in the early 1990s, before the Department of Justice pursued a case in 1998 with several states. The central claim of the landmark case was that Microsoft created a monopoly through its operating systems, choking competitors like Netscape and Apple.

The first decision in what became a winding Microsoft lawsuit would have broken up the company into two, one for the operating system and the other for software production. Appeals ended in a 2001 settlement that, among other measures, required Microsoft to share parts of its source code with third parties. Such sharing was meant to catalyze more development — though some states thought that solution was inadequate. But the company was not split up and it remains a tech juggernaut.

On Thursday, the DOJ argued that the 2001 Microsoft settlement let Apple build its tools on Windows products, like iTunes for Windows personal computers. On the heels of that success, Apple kept innovating and struck gold with the iPhone and its App Store to become an entrenched tech player well beyond desktop computers.

Now, the DOJ and 16 attorneys general are going after Apple, employing similar arguments that they used against Microsoft. Prosecutors said Apple has its hands in too many pots and suppresses competition for everything from payments to smart watches by "delaying, degrading, or outright blocking" other technology.

Apple plans to fight the lawsuit, which it said in a statement would "set a dangerous precedent, empowering government to take a heavy hand in designing people's technology."

The government hasn't won a big tech antitrust case like Microsoft since, although it's trying a similar playbook with Google's parent company Alphabet. That trial wrapped up in November and is awaiting the judge's decision; he said at closing arguments that he had "no idea" how he would rule.

Microsoft appeared 26 times in Thursday's complaint, the most by far of any tech company.




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