Four Experts Speculate on a Future with Two Microsofts
In mid-June, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson released his plan for the breaking up of Microsoft. Commentary was swift and voluminous on whether the action was fair, whether it would indeed happen, how long the process would take, and what is Microsoft's next move. We at ENT wanted to project out a little further. If the split does indeed happen, what does that mean to you, the IT professional. We asked two of our current columnists and two of our past columnists to tell you what they believe a two-Microsoft environment will be like.
Do you want a big Microsoft or big government? For now anyway, it appears you are stuck with the latter. Big government, aided and abetted by big mouths at Oracle, Sun, Netscape, among others, wants to break Microsoft in two. This move is certain to have significant immediate and long-term impact on the company, and therefore on you.
First the immediate impact. Unless a settlement is reached, the appeals process will last at least a year, possibly much longer. Over time, I have spoken with several former and few current long-time IBMers who worked for Big Blue during the protracted, 13-year anti-trust action against it. Not one of them said business-as-usual was possible in the shadow of the government suit.
For example, they said IBM delayed product introductions, which were scrutinized for possible anti-trust implications. The company that was so nimble in the 1960s responded with deliberate slowness to key market shifts after the suit was filed, such as missing the growing user preference for minicomputers versus mainframes. Most critically, valuable and always-limited resources were diverted to the anti-trust fight, away from product development, customer support, and other true business endeavors.
There is no reason to believe the situation will be any different at Microsoft during the appeals process. Even Microsoft’s vaunted ability to attract the very best and brightest from top universities will be imperiled to some degree. The impact on customers from any or all these negative influences should be apparent.
Assuming Microsoft is cleaved into two pieces, one for applications and one for operating systems, I foresee a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly for Microsoft’s enterprise customers.
In an IT world characterized by hybrid computing architectures, Microsoft’s applications and network development efforts closely coupled with Windows development gave customers exactly what they wanted -- free and easy data flow among applications with little or no barriers to choosing best-of-breed hardware. Take away that cozy OS-application development relationship and integration is the victim.
Enterprise managers who deal now with one point of contact for Microsoft applications and Windows resources will have to deal with two separate contracts, two organizations for support, two sets of pricing, and so on. When it comes to things like this, more is less. The only thing you might get more of is finger pointing among vendors when there are systems problems.
For Linux enthusiasts, the break-up will produce potentially significant gains. One of the bigger knocks on Linux -- a lack of broadly available third-party-developed software, will surely improve if developers believe the Windows "standard" no longer exists. Even the Microsoft applications company may start developing an Office version for Linux.
Java’s 2 million-plus developers believe a break-up of Microsoft will encourage more users to turn away from Microsoft’s C language and more fully embrace the cross-platform pedigree of Java. If nothing else, there will be more choice in the language area for enterprise users.
I do see one potential bright spot here for Microsoft and, by association, for its customers. In my 20 years of closely following the IT world, I have not met a more fiercely competitive individual than Bill Gates or a more focused and driven company than Microsoft. Its remarkable makeover into a Web company when it was so late to the Internet party is testimony to the determination of the company and its founder.
Microsoft may be at its very best when its back is firmly against the wall -- be that as a complete company or as two separate parts. "Best" for Microsoft has always translated into highly integrated product sets that give users the kind of value and performance they just couldn’t buy elsewhere. Otherwise, they would have. Too bad our federal government didn’t consider this. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By now, hundreds of writers have written thousands of words and countless opinions on Microsoft's anti-trust trial and the aftermath. Cut through it all, and the only consensus that surfaces is that nobody knows for sure how it will all turn out.
One thing we can be sure of is that the future won’t be the same as the past. Even if Microsoft wins all the appeals, it will face high-stakes legal battles and constraints on its product decisions for months and years to come. If Microsoft loses, it will split into two stand-alone companies: an operating system firm with severe restrictions on its conduct and an applications company free to compete unfettered.
Despite Microsoft’s public show of confidence, it is facing unprecedented trouble. No matter how all the appeals turn out, Microsoft will wield considerably less power than before the trial. We can discuss endlessly how Microsoft got into this mess or whether it's fair, but the more important challenge is to determine where do we go from here?
For individual technical professionals, the answer is easy: diversify your skill base. The market for talent with Microsoft products is too crowded anyway. Learn Linux or some variant of Unix, learn about routers, learn Java or some other development language, learn about X Windows. Pick some technology beyond your Windows NT skills that looks interesting and master it. Even if Microsoft ultimately remains whole, you’ll be more marketable with another specialty. If Microsoft loses, you’ll be in position to participate in another paradigm shift.
If you’re a value-added reseller or other solution provider, it’s time to put some distance between you and Microsoft. Look at porting your application to Linux, take on a non-PC based product if you’re a hardware reseller, broaden the skill base of your staff, and find some attribute of your offering that makes you unique and valuable. The companies that will thrive in the future need to offer some unique value beyond being a sales arm for Microsoft, or any major vendor for that matter. Define yourselves in terms of what you can do for your customers, not your expertise in Microsoft products.
For managers, IT Directors, and CIOs used to standardizing on Microsoft because it’s the safest bet, I have some strong suggestions that will make many of you mad. I read an article recently that quoted a CIO who was worried about the breakup order because he could no longer count on Microsoft setting and enforcing standards. True, with a less powerful Microsoft, the world will become more chaotic and we will all face an even more complex array of choices and system integration issues.
However, to expect a vendor -- any vendor -- to set your company’s IT direction is sheer laziness. Your companies pay you to make decisions, don’t they? You’re the ones who are supposed to define your companies’ IT strategies aren’t you? It’s time to start earning your pay because you’ll have to start thinking for yourselves soon.
Stop playing politics and start leading. Get your lazy rear ends out of your corner offices and into the data centers and learn firsthand about what’s really happening. Figure out what your companies do, then find a way to apply information technology to make your companies do it better. Believe me, vendors need you more than you need them, but you need to educate yourselves and become a savvy consumers of technology.
One thing is certain: The world keeps getting more complicated with no end in sight. It definitely won’t be boring. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at email@example.com.
Should Judge Penfield Jackson’s entire remedy be enforced on Microsoft, the results will have a large impact on the industry as a whole -- not just Microsoft.
The most immediate impact of breaking Microsoft into an operating systems company and an applications company would be the freeing of the applications business to make decisions related to opportunities outside the Windows platform. As radical as it might seem today, the applications business could address the up-and-coming Linux client market and port its server products -- particularly development tool, database, and groupware technologies -- over to other server operating environments. Key targets would be the Unix and Linux server operating environments.
While this may be a possible outcome, at present the financial justification to expand onto Linux doesn't seem to be there. By supporting Windows and Mac OS, Microsoft’s application software now runs on 92 percent of the new shipments of client operating environments. A spin-off company may not be able to justify the investment to port the Office suite over to Linux to garner an additional 4 percent of the market. If for some reason a Microsoft applications company does move into the Linux productivity market, it would present a serious threat to desktop/personal productivity players already in the space, including Corel Corp. A Microsoft applications company could expand its markets on the server side, too, with database and groupware products on non-Microsoft platforms. But this is a competitive market arena with established, well-financed, and capable competitors like IBM and Oracle.
One-third of Judge Jackson's final judgement was devoted to OEM relations and contractual tying. While this action has little impact on systems managed by IT professionals, an interesting side effect of the trial and increased public scrutiny on Microsoft’s actions have, to a degree, had the effect of lessening Microsoft’s grip on hardware OEMs. Witness Dell’s alliance with Red Hat that was announced last month. This move makes Red Hat Linux one of Dell’s three core server operating environments. Do you think this relationship could have been established, let alone played up, three years ago without some behind-the-scenes backlash from Microsoft?
Unfortunately, the bottom line of this component of the ruling may serve to raise average license prices paid by retail customers, since Microsoft will have to publicize a price list. You can be sure the list will not reflect the most lucrative deal that any individual OEM has negotiated. For customers purchasing products under Microsoft’s Open, Enterprise, or Select agreements, this ruling will have little effect.
Microsoft also has been ordered to open its source code to OEMs, ISVs, and IHVs to allow their products to interoperate with Microsoft Platform Software. Putting aside the potentially damaging ramifications of this demand, the order will ensure that there are more competitive technologies that will work with or be able to replace parts of Microsoft’s software technology. This clause makes it difficult for Microsoft to intentionally lock out competitors, translating into a larger third-party software market for tools and system software.
Judge Jackson’s restriction on binding middleware products to the operating system creates a relatively liberal definition of middleware. As such, this order will slice deep into Microsoft’s ability to integrate new features into the operating system. This remedy surely reduces the current Microsoft’s ability to create tightly integrated products, but it becomes less of an issue after the mandated separation of the applications and operating systems businesses. Whether Microsoft is split or not, enforcement of this clause will remain a difficult point for Microsoft, and may make it harder for the operating systems business to compete. --Al Gillen is research manager for system software at IDC (www.idc.com) and co-author of "An Analysis of the Antitrust Remedies Placed on Microsoft," which is available on IDC’s Web site.
I don’t know which software vendor will have anti-trust problems a few years from now, but I do know the product getting them in trouble will be a desktop operating system.
Not that long ago, most large organizations had a chaotic desktop environment: Macs, Windows, OS/2, and Unix were all in use. Those days are history, but getting to today’s more coherent, more manageable world required a great deal of effort.
We moved to a desktop monoculture because it made our organizations work better. We chose monopoly because it allowed us to run our businesses more effectively, which is the reason we use computers in the first place.
One of Judge Jackson’s goals in breaking up Microsoft is to eventually cause today’s desktop monopoly to crack. If the breakup happens, he might get his wish. Over the next few years Linux could emerge as a viable desktop competitor, and perhaps StarOffice will overthrow today’s Microsoft Office hegemony. The judge and Microsoft’s competitors would presumably be very happy. Most large user organizations would not.
Imagine that a few years from now, there are two or more viable alternatives for desktop operating systems. If this happens, the problems inherent in desktop diversity will once again appear. To eliminate these very real headaches, organizations will do the same thing they’ve done in the past: pick one operating system and deploy it everywhere. Since most organizations will pick the choice that their clients and partners are using, or the one they think everyone else is most likely to go with, the result would eventually be another monopoly. Whether that standard consists of Linux and StarOffice rather than Windows and Microsoft Office, the end result will be the same -- the resurgence of a desktop monoculture.
For organizations that sweat bullets in the past getting down to a single desktop standard, it’s hard to view as progress the possibility of multiple viable desktop operating systems. Enterprise customers want a desktop monopoly, so come hell or high water, they will create one. Judge Jackson has the power to make us refight the desktop battle one more time, but he can’t dictate the shape of the outcome. No matter what the Department of Justice wishes, there will always be a single winner. In the aftermath of a Microsoft dismemberment, get ready to go back to the future and battle once again about desktop standards.
The Department of Justice’s April announcement of its intent to break up Microsoft coincided with the last day of GartnerGroup’s Windows 2000 conference. The last analyst to speak that day asked conference attendees, several hundred of Microsoft’s largest customers, to raise a hand if they thought Microsoft had broken the law. Around half the attendees in the room put up a hand. He then asked how many thought Microsoft should be broken up. In the entire room three hands were raised, and one of them was from the IBM guy sitting next to me. This lack of enthusiasm for change shouldn’t be surprising. After all, these are the people responsible for creating the monopoly in the first place.
If Microsoft is broken up, and if viable competitors to Windows and Office emerge, look forward to another anti-trust trial sometime in the next decade. It might not be Microsoft in the dock, but whoever wins the war for desktop dominance will emerge as a monopoly. A desktop monopoly exists because a large share of users want one. Government regulation notwithstanding, customers still rule. --David Chappell is principal of Chappell & Associates (Minneapolis), an education and consulting firm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.