Microsoft seeks relevance as open source era passes it by

A decade ago there was Microsoft and there was everyone else. The government tried, and failed, to change that. Open source succeeded where the government could not.

Microsoft's top flack, Frank Shaw, recently offered the most fascinating blog post I (and other reporters) have seen in some time.

It's mostly a collection of numbers, meant to show that no matter how big you think other tech companies are, or how important, Microsoft is still the biggest, the IBM of the PC era.

It's also, as MG Siegler of TechCrunch correctly notes, a cry for help.(Image from the Gates Foundation.)

A decade ago there was Microsoft and there was everyone else. A tech journalism site without a Redmond bureau (or a clued-in freelance) wasn't worth reading. The question was whether progress could happen without Microsoft.

The government tried, and failed, to change that. Open source succeeded where the government could not. .

Open source has made Microsoft appear, from the outside, to be a very old company. Its Elvis, Bill Gates, has left the building. And like IBM after the Watson era, Microsoft has struggled for an identity beyond that.

Ironically IBM finally found its identity with a lot of help from open source. Linux unified its product lines, and let Lou Gerstner transform it into a services company. IBM no longer needs headlines.

It has also become a classic "widows and orphans" stock, a company with predictable earnings and dividends. It's still a great place to work. My next-door neighbor was an IBM lifer when I was a kid, and my best friend from that era became an IBM lifer as well.

It's just never going to be sexy any more. Just like Microsoft is never going to be sexy any more. Welcome to corporate middle age.

Microsoft did this to itself. Having raked in all the chips in the PC era, it spread its risk in the Internet era. Some of the bets have paid off, some haven't. But none has paid off the way the original PC bet did.

Today's Microsoft is a force in cloud computing, in video games, in online services, and in enterprise computing. But consumers are into apps, into social networking, into those higher levels of abstraction open source gave companies like Google a chance at early this decade.

I know that for a man like Mr. Shaw, this is frustrating. His post reads like nothing so much as an IBM statement from 20 years ago. Back when Microsoft was young, when its chairman was being compared with Sam Walton. Its salad days, green in memory.

Reading over this last you may ask, what about Apple? Apple re-invented itself. Apple is young, it's hip, and it's now worth more than Microsoft, thanks to Steve Jobs.

True, if Bill Gates was Elvis then Jobs is The Boss. But even Bruce Springsteen knows about the wrinkles and the grays..

If Microsoft really does want to be young again, it needs to get itself a young entrepreneur with a clear vision, and bet the company on that vision. But can a company paying regular quarterly dividends of 13 cents per common share really go back to the garage?

Maybe it can, but I'm the same age as Gates and Jobs, 55. Would I really want to start over again? No. There are consolations in middle age, as Bill Gates proves each day. Microsoft should relax and enjoy them.

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