Microsoft: beware the ‘friendly’ tech giant

Microsoft was once the primary target of Big Tech antitrust cases, narrowly avoiding having to split into two companies at the end of the 1990s when it was taken to court for making it difficult for customers to uninstall Internet Explorer in favour of other browsers.

The company eventually settled with the US Department of Justice. Since then it has mostly managed to steer clear of the criticism thrown at other tech behemoths such as Google. But that’s changing.

Critics claim that with its cloud computing business, Microsoft is back to repeating past tactics such as “tying” customers to its products. Such claims were at the centre of the last round of regulatory actions against the company.

Some customers accuse Microsoft of charging huge fees to use its software on rival clouds, such as using Office on Amazon Web Services, while getting discounted fees if they use Microsoft’s own Azure cloud offering instead.

Microsoft was already the subject of a formal antitrust complaint Slack filed with the EU in 2020, which accused the tech group of unfairly bundling its rival app Teams with its Office 365 tools. More recently it’s emerged that Microsoft 365 customers get access to the highest level of security only if they pay for the premium E5 version, so essentially being nudged into buying another bundle of features.

There are other parts of Microsoft’s business that are also on regulators’ radars. The company’s proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard for $75bn is likely to face competition reviews in the EU and US, and has left some concerned that Microsoft will use the purchase to monopolise an increasingly consolidated gaming market.

Unlike in the 1990s, this time round Microsoft has made gestures to suggest it wants to listen to customers’ feedback and be friendly towards start-ups entering the market. Two weeks after complaints that users of the latest edition of Windows were finding it hard to use a browser other than Microsoft’s own, it made it easier for users to switch their default browser.

Responding to the allegation that it was using anti-competitive tactics to draw customers to its Azure cloud computing service and away from rivals, the company’s president Brad Smith conceded that Microsoft was partially at fault, albeit without providing specifics. How it responds to potential regulatory scrutiny may show if Microsoft really has changed, or has just become more strategic about when it adopts a more aggressive stance.

The Internet of (Four) Things

1. Self-diagnosis ads on TikTok blur mental health fears with reality
Medical brands that encourage users to self-diagnose mental health conditions so they can then offer them expensive treatments as the solution have been described as “predatory” by watchdog groups, which argue that these brands “oversimplify” health conditions and encourage misdiagnosis. But it’s not just advertisers who need to be policed by platforms for posting dubious mental health content — the users can be just as bad.

2. Why TikTok’s journey to the top of the social media pyramid is almost complete
The company may need to be more scrupulous in the ads it permits, but it’s certainly not having any trouble attracting advertisers. A forecast from Insider Intelligence puts TikTok’s advertising revenue at $11.6bn this year — up threefold from last year’s $3.9bn — and advertising revenue growth is set to beat rivals this year. Our Lex team looks at how TikTok can take advantage of flux in the advertising market.

3. Google bets on offices with $9.5bn US investment
The move is striking considering many tech companies, including Google, have been struggling to get workers back into the office.

4. Russian tech industry faces ‘brain drain’ as workers flee
A Russian tech industry trade group has estimated that between 50,000-70,000 tech workers had left the country by late March, with many leaving for Armenia and up to 100,000 more likely to follow. The exodus reverses 10 to 15 years of momentum for the Russian tech industry. Russians working in tech are part of a global market, with the means to leave as well as incentives.

Tech tools — Analogue Pocket

Not many of us feel nostalgic for nineties tech, but if there was one item you wish you could bring back it would be the Game Boy, right? Clearly, the people behind Analogue Pocket felt the same way — meet the Game Boy that’s had a glow-up. Made by a start-up not linked to Nintendo, it runs the 2,780-plus original Nintendo games, but also has a gorgeous matte black (or white) finish and a backlit LCD screen with a resolution 10x sharper than the original Game Boy. Sadly, the price point has not stayed in the nineties, but at $219 it’s not incomparable to a Nintendo Switch.