Where was Microsoft? Antitrust experts explain why they think the company managed to avoid testifying alongside Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook in this week's Big Tech hearing

  • Microsoft was notably missing as peer companies Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook faced a Congressional antitrust hearing this week.
  • The company's absence was noteworthy because it's bigger than several of the companies that testified, is still dominant in many sectors of enterprise software market, and was accused of anticompetitive practices by Slack just this month.
  • Antitrust experts say Microsoft managed to avoid the hearing mostly because the company is good at flying under the radar when it comes to the scrutiny that's followed Big Tech for the last several years. 
  • Microsoft declined to comment on Wednesday's hearing.
  • Are you a Microsoft employee? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-425-344-8242) or email ([email protected]).
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the CEOs of the biggest technology companies in the country — including the chief execs of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google — fielded questions from Congress on Wednesday about how their business practices might harm competition, one tech-industry behemoth was notably absent.

Microsoft is the second-most valuable tech company in the world (behind only Apple), has a dominant position in the enterprise software market, and just this month was the subject of a complaint in the European Union from competitor Slack about anticompetitive practices, the sort of thing on which Wednesday's hearings were to focus.

But antitrust experts told Business Insider that the company's absence from the hearing had less to do with the company's business practices, and more to do with Microsoft's ability to fly under the radar when it comes to the scrutiny that's followed its competitors for the last several years. 

With the Slack complaint being "one big exception," D.A. Davidson analyst Rishi Jaluria said Microsoft's reputation has changed significantly since the days of its own antitrust scrutiny.

"Microsoft was known as 'The Evil Empire' in the 1990s and had the big antitrust suit against them related to bundling Internet Explorer with Windows," Jaluria said. "Microsoft today under Satya Nadella, has become a 'kinder, gentler Microsoft,'" referring to the company's willingness to work with competitors. 

Microsoft declined to comment on the hearing.

Microsoft remains a major force in the enterprise software market, and competitor Slack recently accused Microsoft of anticompetitive tactics. 

Microsoft faced its own antitrust battle more than two decades ago, when the company was accused of anticompetitive moves including bundling Internet Explorer with its Windows operating system.

In the time since then, however, Microsoft has seen plenty of new challenges — notably, the emergence of Amazon Web Services as the market-leading cloud platform, even as Microsoft abandoned its smartphone ambitions as Apple and Google came to rule the market. Even the Xbox One game console is lagging behind Sony's PlayStation 4. In other words, experts suggest, Microsoft is no longer seen in the market as an unstoppable superpower.

"There's a general sense that the four companies testifying have unique power in the tech industry, a position that Microsoft held 20 years ago but probably doesn't have today," Michael Carrier, a Rutgers Law School professor and antitrust expert, said.

And yet, Microsoft's "dominance remains significant" in the PC market with the Windows operating system, and enjoys a similarly dominant position in productivity thanks to Office, according to Andrew Gavil, a Howard University School of Law professor who co-wrote a book on Microsoft's antitrust cases. 

Gavil said it's possible Microsoft has not been "engaging in the kind of exclusionary strategies that drew attention to it two decades ago," but pointed to Slack's recent antitrust complaint against Microsoft.

Slack this month filed a complaint against Microsoft centered around the company's Teams communications app, alleging Microsoft violates antitrust laws by bundling Teams into its suite of productivity tools, forcing customers to install it and blocking its removal.

"We created Teams to combine the ability to collaborate with the ability to connect via video, because that's what people want," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement about the complaint, but declined to comment on the hearing. "With COVID-19, the market has embraced Teams in record numbers while Slack suffered from its absence of video-conferencing. We're committed to offering customers not only the best of new innovation, but a wide variety of choice in how they purchase and use the product."

But Microsoft manages to avoid a lot of Big Tech scrutiny.

Gavil, the Howard University professor, said another factor in Microsoft's absence from the hearing is that the company has mostly been successful in avoiding the scrutiny that's followed Big Tech over the last several years. 

Under the tenure of CEO Satya Nadella, who took over in 2014, Microsoft has doubled down on serving business customers — even LinkedIn, its social networking subsidiary, is focused on the professional market. In so doing, it's avoided many of the controversies that have plagued its peer companies.

To that point, any of the questions lawmakers asked during the hearing had little to do with antitrust at all, with several questions focusing instead on content moderation policies and allegations around the censorship of conservative voices on platforms like Google-owned YouTube or Facebook. 

"The answer," Gavil said, "may lie in the non-antitrust issues that grew so much attention to the others, especially Google and Facebook. Microsoft has not been at the center of any information issues, such as privacy, data security, or facilitating the dissemination of disinformation."

Are you a Microsoft employee? Contact this reporter via email at [email protected], message her on Twitter @ashannstew, or send her a secure message through Signal at 425-344-8242.

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