End of an era: Microsoft case comes to official close

The biggest antitrust case of the digital age comes to an official end Thursday in the United States with the expiration of the final judgment in the antitrust case against Microsoft.

The Justice Department, 19 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit in 1998 alleging that the software giant violated antitrust laws. The suit claimed Microsoft was illegally attempting to maintain its monopoly over computer operating systems by excluding competing middleware programs such as Internet browsers and media players.

The lawsuit was launched by the Clinton administration but was settled by the administration of George W. Bush in 2002 for far less than what Microsoft's critics were seeking - such as the breakup of the company.

"The final judgment helped create competitive conditions that enabled new kinds of products, such as cloud computing services and mobile devices, to develop as potential platform threats to the Windows desktop operating system," the Justice Department said in a statement this week.

The settlement barred Microsoft from engaging in exclusionary behavior harmful to competitors and consumers and required the company to provide third parties with the programming details needed to design their products to work with Microsoft's operating system. However, it did not bar Microsoft from continuing to bundle new products into new versions of its Windows operating system.

"The general impact is that it produced a better corporate citizen in Microsoft and perhaps a less aggressive competitor," said Glenn Manishin, a lawyer with Duane Morris who worked for some of the groups that urged the Justice Department to bring the lawsuit against Microsoft.

While the final judgment was ultimately viewed as a victory for Microsoft, the case distracted the company for years and cost it millions of dollars in legal fees. Microsoft also had to deal with private legal battles and the European Union's antitrust case. Microsoft is still appealing the EU's fine in that case.

"Our experience has changed us and shaped how we view our responsibility to the industry," Microsoft said in a statement this week. "We are pleased to bring this matter to successful resolution, and we are excited to keep delivering great products and services for our partners and customers."