The Empire Strikes Back?

You’d have thought Bill Gates had just won a gold medal.

The Supreme Court decision to pass on the Microsoft antitrust case had many in the media acting like groupies at an ‘NSYNC concert.

The “spin” went like this: The case is over, Bill has won, bundling’s back in style, life is going back to normal, and the Empire is striking back.

Puh-leeze! Microsoft lost its way a half-dozen years ago. The world has moved on, and nothing – repeat, nothing – can be done to put this monopoly back together again.

There are two reasons for this. The first is illustrated by a joke.

How many Microsoft people does it take to screw in a lightbulb? They can’t until the lawyers say they can. Microsoft’s decision to fight the Justice Department filled its corridors with so many lawyers, flaks, and naysayers that it will always be vulnerable.

The second reason Microsoft’s monopoly is dead is that its bundles have lost their power. The hottest devices of the moment, the PDA and cell phone, don’t run Microsoft software, and their prices can’t handle a $500 operating system anyway. The game of replacing your PC every few years and buying a new Microsoft OS and Office system is ending. The replacement cycle is slowing, and more services are coming from the network, where servers increasingly run Solaris or Linux.

Microsoft’s hegemony was based on having a chokepoint on users’ wallets in the form of the operating system, then bundling new capabilities to drive out competitors and driving up the price. That game is over.

Besides, the company has just gotten s-l-o-w. I wrote a feature recently on Content Management, software that separates the content of your web pages from the way they’re presented. It’s a key capability. Microsoft does not have a similar product. With the whole world now moving on Internet time, we don’t have time to wait on vaporware and yearly update cycles. We don’t have time to waste waiting for one company to fix a bug, either not when the network connects us to a world of potential fixes.

Other than its operating systems and its Office bundles, Microsoft hasn’t innovated and hasn’t succeeded where it counts – in the marketplace. Windows CE lags the Palm, the Microsoft Network lags AOL, and Windows 2000 is losing to Sun Solaris. Microsoft SQL Server is being squashed by Oracle’s database, and Larry Ellison’s fortune is just a few billion short of Gates’s on the Forbes 400 list. The Apple is still cooler than Windows.

It’s a new century, and the playing field has shifted. Speed beats scale, and Microsoft is no longer a start-up. Once Microsoft chose to make war on the government, Microsoft became the government and lost its flexibility. The company that comes closest to having the power Microsoft once held is America Online and that’s like saying an ostrich can rule like a T-Rex.

Say what you will about the final decision in U.S. vs. Microsoft but that no longer matters. Microsoft will never be what it once was or what it could have been.

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