Outlook: Microsoft saviour

WHEN JOHN D Rockefeller was asked how investors should respond to the government enforced breakup of Standard Oil, he said: "Buy more Standard Oil stock". Perhaps surprisingly, he was vindicated. Standard Oil was worth more to investors as a sum of the parts than ever it was as a behemoth, even though the company's monopolistic hold over oil distribution in the US had been shattered.

The story is instructive because it demonstrates that it is not just consumers and economic vitality more generally which are damaged by monopoly. It is often quite bad for investors too, for it leads to waste and inefficiency, and it stultifies innovation. Eventually, the dragon will sleep and it is at that point that the beast becomes most vulnerable to those that would steal its treasure. It is not yet clear that enforced breakup will be Microsoft's fate, but certainly the computer software goliath seems to have been dealt a savage blow in round one of the legal proceedings. However, the point is that even if Microsoft is eventually split asunder, it need not necessarily matter.

Part of the strength of the US economy is its vigorous anti-trust laws, its ability to turn on the business Frankensteins it creates and cut them to bits again. Far from suffering from such self-inflicted abuse, the American economy seems positively to thrive on it.

The Microsoft monopoly is in many respects a unique one, created as it is not by acquisition, Government edict or fowl play, but by the market's preference for its computer operating system. But that doesn't make it any less of a monopoly, or Bill Gates any less prone to exploit it. Yet perversely, as with Standard Oil, even his investors may benefit from its demise.

Mr Gates is very fond of saying that such is the pace of innovation and intensity of competition in his industry, that Microsoft will be lucky still to be around in twenty years time. That might indeed be so if Microsoft grows old as it is. But there's no reason its offspring shouldn't still be here, vigorously competing with each other and thriving.

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