Happy MSN Day

It’s MSN Day!

Have you sent your cards and gotten your gifts? Have they been spread under your PC with care, in hope that St. Bill soon will be there?

MSN Day is actually a press event (now becoming a habit) in which Microsoft executives bring big media to Seattle and promise that this time, for sure, they’ve figured out how to dominate the web. (It’s a bit like “Pinky and the Brain,” with Steve Ballmer as the Brain.)

In previous years they’ve launched branded access (they’re neck-and-neck with Mindspring), custom technology with “great new shows” (remember “Mungo Park?”), the MSNBC cable channel (remember Keith Olbermann?), and “channels,” which still keep the Explorer browser at least one annoyance away from being decent.

This year, as with “Chicago Hope,” there will be new cast members (Rick Belluzzo, formerly of Silicon Graphics Inc., has the Mandy Patinkin role), a new emphasis on small business, and a focus on technology rather than TV-like programming. This time, Big Green promises, they’ve really got it, and the competition is going to get it.

On this one, I guess we’re all from Missouri (“Show me!”) and frankly I suspect that if Microsoft really “got it” the suits would realize that, save their money, and do the whole thing via a web teleconference.

But it’s hard to see these events ending any time soon, because despite Microsoft’s failure to find true online success, the company just keeps getting richer. Since Bill Gates claimed a “crisis” over Netscape’s web dominance, in mid-1995, the company’s stock market valuation has risen ten-fold.

Its market capitalization now stands at nearly $500 billion, about $100 billion ahead of General Electric Corp. For all the Rockefeller-scale largesse he and his wife Melinda have been showering on the nation’s charities these last few years, Bill Gates’ fortune has grown, not shrunk.

More important for our discussion, the “Consumer and Commerce Group” Belluzzo is charged with “turning around” is now a sizable bureaucracy. The outfit needs suits, just to keep people out of one another’s way. Despite the laughter heard (even here) over the “failure” of such efforts as Slate, MSFDC, Expedia, and the MSN Network, the company as a whole could do $20 billion in business over the next year, and bring 40 percent of that money to its bottom line.

In that kind of organization, what’s most needed is someone to concentrate on opportunities. A $100 million business may not be worth minding. So expect more deals like Monday’s with Ford, in which CarPoint will become not a car buying system, but a build-to-order system like Dell or Gateway.

Ford, which is worth “only” $57 billion, hopes the new venture will eventually give it its own Internet play (and Internet stock), a gatekeeping business model rivals like GM or Daimler-Chrysler must march through or match in order to stay in the car game.

Ford’s complete commitment will be necessary to make the plan work. But for Microsoft it’s probably small beer, not material to its financial results and (maybe) not even the kind of thing that will get Belluzzo another season. He’ll not only need a half-dozen other deals like that, but a half-dozen successful (bottom line) deals like that to stay on his boss’ good side.

And so this is MSN Day. Be of good cheer. Have a wassail. Give something away. Just imagine how rich Gates might be without all this distraction and ridicule. (Better yet, don’t. That would be a Halloween column.)

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