Intel executives, coming up on a pre-trial conference in a case that could decide their company’s fate, should be looking with envy and admiration at Tiger Woods, and wondering how to make their business more like his.
If golf followed the same path as other businesses, Tiger could expect to face a lawsuit contending that his dominance of professional golf is based on unfair competition. And in fact, a few years back Sergio Garcia whined that Tiger got better practice times, favorable treatment around the course, more protection against distracting fans — little things that could, Mr. Garcia intimated, explain Tiger’s edge. Sportswriters responded swiftly, deriding Mr. Garcia for looking to blame others for his being outcompeted. They understood that sports contests belong on the field, not in the media or the courts.
The same should be true of business. Market-based economies thrive on competition. The competitive economy doesn’t yield an infinite number of equally successful firms producing indistinguishable products, but lets winners and losers emerge from marketplace competition. The (inevitably) temporary dominance of one product or one firm spurs others to compete harder. Today, however, many businesses — especially American ones — find it easier to restrain a dominant competitor through the courts than to beat it in the market.
Take the case of Advanced Micro Devices and Intel, the dominant chipmaker for PCs and servers. AMD for years played the role of Phil Mickelson to Intel Corporation’s Tiger Woods — the talented rival who keeps coming up short in head-to-head competition. Last year, it decided to model Mr. Garcia rather than Mr. Mickelson, filing an antitrust action against Intel, charging it with a variety of unlawful actions.
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AMD finds fault in Intel’s continued market dominance: Because Intel has had 80% or more of the x86 chip processor market for many years it must be doing something illegal to keep rivals out. Yet, George Stigler, among others, long ago debunked the significance of market share as a measure of competition. Duopoly markets, like the market for large commercial aircraft, can be fiercely competitive. Ask anyone working at Boeing or Airbus.
Moreover, markets can change rapidly, especially high-tech markets, often in ways unanticipated by antitrust suits. Witness the changes in computing that caused the government’s antitrust case against IBM to implode.
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