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The Microsoft saga continues. A quick recap: The Justice Department late last month filed suit to block Microsoft's $2.1 billion acquisition of financial software leader Intuit Inc.

The ramifications for online banking, and Microsoft's entry into new markets in general, are well-traveled turf. Less often traversed is the tectonic shift in antitrust policy. Assistant Attorney General Anne Bingaman intends to revamp antitrust practice to accord with the information technology age. Many claim she fell short last year when Microsoft signed a consent decree with the Justice Department requiring minor changes in software licensing practices.

But not so with the attempt to block the Intuit deal. Antitrust policy is no longer a matter of reducing a company's position in existing markets; antitrust enforcers must go after companies before they dominate markets.

So the case against the Intuit acquisition is only partly based on Micro-soft gaining control over the $200 million market for personal finance software. The Justice Department is also trying to prevent them from controlling the online banking industry -- an industry that barely exists.

This means the Justice Department believes it can say how technology will be used, bought and sold in a market that has yet to emerge. Even the best and brightest industrialists have lacked this kind of foresight. That includes Bill Gates, who has failed to dominate key software markets such as databases [Oracle] and groupware [Lotus Development]. These are industries Microsoft knows, so it seems a stretch to believe it could control markets it doesn't know, such as banking.

Gary Reback, who filed a brief opposing the Microsoft purchase of Intuit, writes in the May 1995 Inc. that in certain industries, "consumers get locked into the technologies that appear first in the marketplace, even if those technologies are inferior to what comes later." Really? Apple had the first graphical user interface, and for years it was far superior to the later-introduced Windows. Did Apple lock consumers in? Lotus came out first with a groupware product called Notes, and now the company dominates the market precisely because products offered by later entrants are inferior.

But no, critics say, Microsoft has a trump in Windows 95, which it can leverage in a kind of mopping up operation to conquer every related and emerging market. Maybe, but Microsoft has bungled operating systems before, and early reports from beta users suggests Windows 95 must travel a long, twisting road to maturity -- full of glitches and other assorted digital potholes.


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