I think they're wrong.
It was the case itself that stayed Microsoft's hand.
Anyone who hasn't been under antitrust scrutiny doesn't know what it's about. The launch of a case requires the hiring of all sorts of lawyers, both inside and outside the gates, whose job it becomes to look over the shoulders of the business and say "no."
No, you can't do that. No, you can't say that. No, you can't write that.
The case itself, in other words, was the penalty. But the case had to be brought.
I wrote at the time the government won its judgement that Microsoft should divide, in 2000, that Microsoft should in fact divide. Division would have ended the case and allowed at least part of the company to act competitively again. But Microsoft's management feared losing that part of itself, and it also hated the idea of losing. The case, for management, had become like a war, a war it had to win.
But the victory, today, is an entirely pyrrhic one. Microsoft has lost many technology generations. It's not the same company now that it was then. Back in 1995 Microsoft was actually hot, it was new, it was on the way up. Now it's old, it's quiescent, it's on the way down.
That's because the antitrust case took up its full attention. Winning the case became an end in itself. Instead of responding proactively to real compllaints, Microsoft denied them for 15 years and became IBM. Not today's IBM, either. The IBM that Microsoft destroyed in the 1980s.
Microsoft has spent most of the last decade going "up the stack," essentially becoming a mainframe play. The enterprise business means fat contracts, but it's also a long sales cycle. Becoming an enterprise company changes you. And having antitrust scrutiny on everything else in the business meant those parts of Microsoft dealing with the consumer market atrophied.
Microsoft didn't just miss open source, fighting it for years before finally accepting its necessity. Microsoft missed the whole idea of Internet infrastructure. It missed gigantic new consumer markets. It became a follower rather than a leader, a butt of jokes.
All this happened because Microsoft fought the government, denied its claims, and brought in lawyers with which to wriggle off the hook. Had it simply divided itself when the government made its charge, it might have had the chance to go back to doing business 13 years ago, when Google was just getting started and the iPod was barely an iGleam in Steve Jobs' iAi.
Maybe, without all those lawyers saying no, Microsoft would have made the same mistakes it has this last decade. Most companies have just one big idea in them, and Microsoft had capitalized on its one big idea by the time the government came calling -- all it was doing was "embracing and extending" (remember that phrase) that one idea. We'll never know.
Fortunately, Google seems to have learned this lesson. It has foregone billions in service contracts, it has given away stuff it could have gotten serious money for, so as not to incur the government's wrath. It still has an enormous, and growing, legal bill, as software patent law and attacks by AT&T shills like Scott Cleland have taken their toll. But you can still go to Google and do great things, create new products, or create lower-cost Internet infrastructure.
Hopefully, that will continue. But if the government does someday come up with an antitrust case against Google, my advice remains what it was to Microsoft. Surrender. Give them what they want, give it to them quickly, and move on.
Hiring too many lawyers is the kiss of death to innovation.