On the eve of the court-imposed deadline for the Justice Department and Microsoft to settle their differences, I find myself wondering how much a settlement matters at this point. Indeed, Microsoft has been ruled a monopoly. And few will dispute that the company leveraged its dominant position in order to disadvantage and in some cases vanquish both competitors and ostensible partners. But thanks to good old competition and innovation, there's enough evidence to suggest that no amount of Microsoft wing-clipping will alter the company's fate. The government could leave Microsoft alone, and my bet is that things would still turn out just fine.
Let's face it: The damage done--and the damage yet to be done--by Microsoft's monopoly is water under the bridge. Outside of retribution, there's very little the government can do to substantially change the course of history. So much has happened on the technology landscape since the proceedings first began that the DOJ now finds itself clamping down on something that has--and will continue to--become increasingly irrelevant: Microsoft's control over the desktop.
Half a decade ago, Microsoft dominated our portal into the sea of digital information, regardless of where that information resided. Ninety-nine percent of us were accessing that information through a Microsoft-controlled device--the desktop computer. For the foreseeable future, Microsoft will continue to own the desktop space. For various reasons, the only challengers to Microsoft on the desktop--Macintosh and Linux--have a hard row to hoe before they can become legitimate contenders. But while Microsoft dominates the desktop, the bigger question is: Will the desktop continue to dominate the way we access information? If the desktop loses its grip, so too could Microsoft.
This is why Microsoft has a full court press on more than just the desktop. The company sees the same thing coming that we all do: the desktop will play an increasingly diminished role as other information appliances such as palmtops, phones, gaming devices, and set-top boxes begin to take over our digital experience. It should come as no surprise that Microsoft has--or plans to have--offerings in all of those areas and then some.
But here is where things may start to unravel for Microsoft, and why any remedy in its case may be moot. As it turns out, while Sun CEO Scott McNealy and his many lieutenants take every opportunity to remind us of Microsoft's monopoly and the harm it has done to Sun and other companies, Sun itself has been scoring win upon win in the information appliance space. In fact, the question is no longer "if" the number of Java clients will pass the number of Windows clients. The question is "when." (If it hasn't already happened.)
One reason for this is that virtually all installed Windows clients are already Java clients by virtue of one very old Java Virtual Machine that Microsoft shipped with Windows until last week, when XP was officially introduced. With all the desktops being a wash between Java and Windows, it comes down to a question of who leads in the information appliance space. It is here that Java looks to be the hands-down winner. This is due in part to a deal between Sun and ARM Holdings, the company that manufactures most of the chipsets found in today's wireless phones. The deal virtually guarantees that the embedded edition of Java 2 (J2ME) will find its way into a majority of the world's mobile phones. Earlier this year, ZDNet reported that Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo was already selling about 60,000 Java phones a day, and that cell phone giant Nokia expects to sell 100 million Java-enabled cell phones by the end of 2003.
If that's not enough, Sun expects that by the end of 2002, over 200 million "smart credit cards" from American Express, Visa, and Mastercard will be equipped with a version of J2ME called JavaCard. If someone wants to do the math, let me know. But it's possible that the answer to the "when" question is already behind us.
This is why Microsoft's withdrawal of the JVM from Windows should have come as no surprise. At first, the move struck me as just another salvo in one of the many on-going skirmishes of our business. For a while, it seemed like one of those many short-lived impasses we encounter in life, where, eventually, things work themselves out. But with Java potentially surpassing Windows in terms of total number of clients (not counting the server editions of each), Microsoft really had no choice.
For half a decade, Microsoft successfully slowed adoption of the most capable version of Java by including the older, less capable version with Windows. Because a majority of the installed base didn't know (or bother) to download the latest version from Sun (something that everyone, including XP users, should do), Java developers were forced into developing for the lowest common denominator, which made Windows a difficult platform for showcasing Java's capabilities.
But now, the latest versions of Java are finding their way into platforms that are at least as ubiquitous as Windows, and Microsoft was left with few options: the JVM had to go. If Java gets any more traction (a trend to which Microsoft could no longer afford to contribute), the next thing to go will be Microsoft's crown jewels: the developers. In fact, a study done earlier this year by Evans Data Corp. indicates that Sun may have already won that battle. Developers prefer big targets and Java now appears to be the biggest. Once developers start targeting Java clients, servers won't be far behind. Servers will be the battleground for the next generation of information technology because of Web services. And no one has a monopoly on them.
So, for all the hootin' and hollerin' that Scott McNealy has been doing about Microsoft's monopoly, he should be one to talk. Java's ramp-up may have been slowed by Microsoft, but after flying below the radar for some time, Java appears to be little worse for the wear. The game is about to heat up and there's little the government can do at this point to change the outcome of round two. DING!
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