The Second Coming of the Microsoft Antitrust Battle?

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Prosecutors compare their new fight against Apple to the seminal case against Windows in the 1990s.

Impeding innovation. Reducing consumer choice. Extending dominance to other markets.

These are accusations that the Justice Department leveled against a technology giant it accused of running an illegal monopoly. But they aren’t from this week’s antitrust lawsuit against Apple — they’re from the case the department brought against Microsoft in 1998.

The move against Apple is, along with the Justice Department’s 2020 lawsuit against Google over search, perhaps the most ambitious tech antitrust battle since the Clinton administration’s effort to open up Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

And federal prosecutors are explicitly connecting the Apple lawsuit to that earlier fight. “They’re really presenting this case as a successor to that: Microsoft 2.0,” said Gus Hurwitz, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

But the comparison isn’t perfect. And it isn’t clear whether the Justice Department will be able to achieve here what it claims to have done by suing Microsoft.

The Justice Department sees a direct connection between the two cases. “Microsoft” appears 26 times in the Apple complaint. And prosecutors say Apple wouldn’t have achieved its current towering success had it not been for the government’s fight against Microsoft:

The iPod did not achieve widespread adoption until Apple developed a cross-platform version of the iPod and iTunes for Microsoft’s Windows operating system, at the time the dominant operating system for personal computers. In the absence of the consent decree in United States v. Microsoft, it would have been more difficult for Apple to achieve this success and ultimately launch the iPhone.

In the 1998 case, the Justice Department argued that Microsoft illicitly sought to protect its Windows software from competition like the Netscape Navigator browser and Apple’s QuickTime multimedia software.

This week, the agency said Apple was doing something similar, unlawfully restricting competition by denying rivals access to key iPhone features like its contactless payment chip. “Each step in Apple’s course of conduct built and reinforced the moat around its smartphone monopoly,” prosecutors wrote in Thursday’s lawsuit.

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