Microsoft's Asteroids of Doom

- by Paul Murphy, -

I've been thinking a lot lately about the future of computing and that, of course, has to include Microsoft's future.

Microsoft's own vision of its future seems clear. They see a transition to a secure Windows OS environment, continuing strength in Office and server applications, and development of a complementary set of business - ERP/SCM and CRM - applications as their route to the future.

That vision is compelling. If achieved, it would allow a business user to license everything from one source, use well known applications like Word or Power Point as live interfaces to production data, and provide operational security in terms of both a relative invulnerability to malicious action and high reliability.

Look closely at Microsoft's image of its own future and it's apparent that they expect their customers to quietly accept some of the costs of this plan. For example, the security solution will require hardware identification and a further layering of network protocols to cover encryption, recognition, authorization, and so on. More interestingly, the use of Office applications as data interfaces to the business applications will make things easier for smaller users but much harder for large multi-site organizations which will no longer be able to use Unix database servers to glue their applications together. Those expectations seem reasonable - after all, improved security is a big carrot and the small system demos will get slicker long before anyone notices that staffing requirements are doubling in bigger businesses launching attempts to deploy the technology.

What Microsoft is not doing, however, is giving up on backwards compatibility. In my opinion Microsoft could deliver on its vision of web enabled, secure, single source, business computing if it started from a clean sheet and built everything on Itanium with no backwards compatibility at all. By not doing that they're making their own task exponentially more difficult, empowering virus writers and other attackers, and tying their own scalability to that of the x86 architecture. They could still pull it off, but my bet is that Microsoft will just muddle along on this, introducing bits of Longhorn technology as they become available, making a big marketing play out of each small advance, and generally over-selling relative to actual deliveries.

This, of course, is exactly what they've done all along. It's true today, for example, that Windows 2003/XP is a better product than Windows NT 4.0 was, but its also true that essentially nothing of Microsoft's mid nineties vision for reliable, self-correcting software made into this century. That's probably what someone in 2010 is going to say too with respect to today's promises: that then current products are better but don't reflect plans from 2003.

In saying that I'm assuming, obviously, that Microsoft will still exist as a software maker. That's not a given; in fact it's only barely more likely than unlikely.

There are at least three things that could, even if the rest of the world evolves as one would wish with no major economic or political disaster in the period, derail Microsoft. The most benign of these is that Microsoft's controlling shareholders decide to break the company up.

Such an action would be highly rational for a number of reasons. First, breaking the company up and handing a significant chunk of cash, say $30 billion, directly to shareholders provides the best possible form of asset protection against both legal action and business change. Furthermore, there are a host of secondary reasons starting with resolving the complexities of the present operation, including separating the unprofitable operations from the cash cows, and ending with something like eliminating the need to maintain the image of parity between home and office systems, for doing this.

Unfortunately it's not that likely to happen, perhaps in part because doing it would demonstrate to the world just how poorly Microsoft's senior management has proven to be at directing investment outside its core markets.

Even less likely is the first of what I think of as Microsoft's twin asteroids of doom. What happens if you take the brightest people right out of University, offer them extremely well paid and highly prestigious jobs in their chosen fields, and then stultify all their efforts in a huge bureaucracy while telling them they're leading the field?

You destroy their potential, that's what happens. It took 35 man years to build and start selling Opera but over 10,000 to build IE 3.0. Think about what that means as an indicator of the management structure and productivity in that organization. Dick Pick built the first releases of his OS while working full time for the Army; Microsoft promises to release something, someday and commits a billion dollars to the first go-round. Who are they kidding here? -everyone's read Brooks's The Mythical Man-Month, and understood what that means, right?

Eight years out of school most of these Microsoft brain trust recruits have a spouse, a mortgage, an assumed right to the kind of lifestyle $130K per year buys, solid training in bureaucratic survival, a vested interest in the status quo, and absolutely no idea what it takes to start and run an entrepreneurial business. Look around you, see any ex-Microserfs breaking new intellectual ground? starting exciting entrepreneurial companies in high tech fields? A few yes, but not nearly enough and then more often as investors and marketeers rather than as owner-managers.

Suppose it turns out they've been destroying these kids on purpose, as a way of keeping them from forming competing companies, joining the open source crowd, or working with Sun. That's an asteroid of doom because no one would want to buy anything from them ever again.

The second possible asteroid is both less grim and far more likely. Suppose it turns out that Microsoft has a long established pattern of duplicitous conduct with respect to real and potential business partners. Offering, for example, potential competitors business and financial help, using that to gain control of the technology, and then helping them bankrupt themselves by creatively withholding promised cash, services, or market support?

That's very much what Sendo alleges happened to them -and that case will be heard in a Texas court this summer. In different ways this kind of conduct has been alleged with respect to RealNetworks current lawsuit, the whole Netscape debacle, and the change at Citrix from the NCD strategy of offering Windows access to Unix users to the Microsoft strategy of offering Unix access to Wintel users.

These actions are relatively small and can, any merit notwithstanding, be stalled in the courts for years if not decades. The era ending asteroid threat here is from disgruntled HP and DEC shareholders. If it turns out first that at least half of what Sendo alleges is at least half right, and then that DEC really was Sendoed then just as HP is now, then simultaneous action through the courts and the SEC could bring the Microsoft era to snappy end.

So how likely is an asteroidal impact of this kind? overall I doubt it's 50%; but it's certainly high enough to warrant some serious consideration.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.