Late last week, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit to block the proposed merger between software giant Microsoft Corporation and Intuit, Inc., makers of finance and tax software (see TidBITS-248). The proposed merger is the largest ever in the software industry, with Microsoft's offer to buy all Intuit stock currently valued at about U.S. $2 billion. Microsoft and Intuit have both indicated they will defend the proposed merger and press for a quick resolution of the suit.
Microsoft and the Justice Department are actually working together on a separate case involving U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin's rejection of an anti-trust case settlement between Microsoft and the Justice Department (see TidBITS-264). Nonetheless, the Justice Department moved to block the Microsoft-Intuit merger on the grounds that it would stifle innovation in personal finance software and lead to higher software prices. Microsoft and Intuit maintain the merger is in the best interests of the market.
However, more is at stake here than the immediate future of Quicken: this merger is about electronic funds transfer and banking, a rapidly-growing industry set to explode in the next few years. At present, Intuit's Quicken dominates more than two-thirds of the personal finance software market, and it's no secret that Microsoft wants a hefty slice of the online-transaction pie. If the merger is approved, Microsoft could be reasonably expected to roll electronic funds transfer technologies into its operating system and desktop applications and, further, to leverage off the upcoming Microsoft Network to provide a single-click solution to electronic banking, shopping, and commerce. By providing the only widely-accepted development tools and packages, Microsoft would be in a unique position to license those technologies to anyone wanting to develop for its platforms. And it's not just Windows: by controlling Intuit, Microsoft also gains a significant advantage in developing commerce technologies for future broadband applications such as interactive television. No matter which of these (or other) scenarios play out, Microsoft will likely position itself to receive royalty checks as often as possible, perhaps even on a per-transaction basis.
Industry analysts have split opinions on the Justice Department suit. Some say it only indicates an agreement couldn't be reached immediately. Others believe the Justice Department case is legally sound, and note that the suit was filed in San Francisco rather than the more conservative environment in Washington D.C. Personally, I think it'd be a shame if the merger was approved. I'd hate to see the relatively svelte Macintosh version of Quicken turn into a 4 MB application that required a Power Mac, OLE, a dozen or more installation disks, and that featured a responsiveness and interface that reminded me of going to the bank.