Thomas Penfield Jackson — the federal judge who declared Microsoft a monopoly and ordered a breakup of the company— died this weekend at the age of 76 from complications of transitional cell cancer, according to a New York Times report.

Thomas Penfield Jackson

Jackson’s landmark breakup order, issued on June 7, 2000, was later overturned by an appeals court, after his colorful criticism of the company and Bill Gates in press interviews was found to be a sign of bias. That gave Microsoft the breathing room to reach a settlement in the case, and the company was able to remain intact.

Looking back at the breakup order today, it’s a reminder of just how much things change in the tech industry, and how quickly. Here’s the core of what Jackson ordered.

The separation of the Operating Systems Business from the Applications Business, and the transfer of the assets of one of them (the “Separated Business”) to a separate entity along with (a) all personnel, systems, and other tangible and intangible assets (including Intellectual Property) used to develop, produce, distribute, market, promote, sell, license and support the products and services of the Separated Business, and (b) such other assets as are necessary to operate the Separated Business as an independent and economically viable entity.

In the meantime, Microsoft and the industry at large have evolved into much more complex organisms. The rise of devices and cloud services makes the notion of separating the company into operating systems and applications seem almost quaint in retrospect.

More and more, Microsoft is aiming to tightly integrate its businesses and unite its various divisions. Breaking up the company these days would be much, much more complex.

But what would have happened if the breakup had gone forward in 2000? Given what we’ve seen, my hunch is that the two companies would have naturally evolved to be complete sets unto themselves — specializing in operating systems and applications, respectively, but gradually adding more and more capabilities until they were each alternative versions of each other. Sort of like a movie or book where you get to see two paths taken by the protagonist, branching out from a pivotal decision at a moment in time.

Would that have been a better outcome? In the Darwinian tech world, it’s quite possible that one of the “Microsofts” would have failed, or been acquired by another company, leaving a leaner Microsoft as the survivor.

But we’ll never know, thanks to a talkative federal judge. RIP, Thomas Penfield Jackson.

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  • panacheart

    Microsoft would have become a stronger company had it been broken up. The attempt to make end-to-end solutions from the ground up has been a failure.

    If Office were a separate company, we would have had Office for MAC and iOS devices long ago. Windows 8 wouldn’t be the pig it is now because its job would have been to be a great OS, not to be a socket for all of MSFT’s acquisitions and software offerings. The Phone would be a great phone, instead of a failed socket for apps that other Microsoft divisions didn’t want to build for the phone anyway.

    This idea scared the shit out of executives in 2001, but I think Microsoft would be far stronger, with higher quality products and more innovation. It would have freed up each division to build great things without all the baggage they have now, to mention nothing of internal annual reviews, hiring and promotions.

    • trolls are tools

      Um, we do have Office for Mac, and several Office apps for iOS as well. The “phone”, by which I guess you really mean the phone OS, is a great OS, at least according to numerous independent media reports and customer reviews. It just hasn’t sold well. That says more about it being late to market than it does a flawed strategy.

  • guest

    Why not break up Google or Apple? Would that make them more effective? The DOJ case against MS was hopelessly flawed and Jackson specifically was an embarrassment, as even his own peers subsequently agreed. But today one thing is crystal clear, smaller independents have very little chance against the size and market power of Google or Apple. Indeed, both arguably exert far more market and vertical control than MS ever did. Even at its height MS wasn’t getting a cut of every app sale on its OS, for example. MS’s “lost decade” is less about structure and more about lack of leadership and focus. Baby MS’s might have forced some additional discipline but that’s only masking a problem, not solving it. Steve Ballmer has done more to level the playing field and destroy MS’s dominance than the DOJ, Jackson, and Apple/Google combined.

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