Aaron Goldberg: "IT's Like This..."

IBM and Microsoft have been at odds over NT for a long time now - wouldn't it be nice if the feuding ceased? Aaron Goldberg investigates...

One of the most problematic situations for IT is when two key vendors get into technology-direction wars that put the customer in the middle. You know how it goes: Vendor A has a key product, but Vendor B doesn't want to support it because even though it's the right thing to do, it will strengthen Vendor A. One of the ugliest of these conflicts has been between IBM and Microsoft over Windows NT.

IBM, now that it has regained some influence on IT professionals' planning, does not want to cede any of it gains to Microsoft. Yet, based on its many faux pas in the early 1990s, it has. The key from IBM's perspective was to keep Microsoft and the PC crowd strapped firmly to the desktop. Along comes NT, creating all kinds of new problems because not only is it a server operating system, but based on what we know about Merced and SMP, it's clear that NT can move far higher up the performance curve. This puts IBM's shorts in a bunch.

In the last year, it has become apparent to IBM that NT is a force that must be reckoned with, and IBM is responding. IBM's field sales organisation is no longer solely in the hands of product line specialists. This has helped in returning IBM's attention to the needs of its customers, and the Worldwide Server Sales team (which was an outcome of this change) has initiatives surrounding NT.

We are approaching the point at which IBM understands that some of the ways it manages accounts and interacts with the various parts of an IT organisation will need to be enhanced if it is to get some NT business. To keep Compaq, HP and Dell from walking away with the lion's share of the NT server business, IBM must implement the changes that a server sales organisation needs.

On the product side, IBM now sees that it cannot build mediocre Intel servers to protect other platforms. With the new Netfinity offerings, it has built Intel server products that are strong competitors without the flaws of older products. Microsoft, too, is cooling the heated rhetoric. It may be a long time before we see any co-ordination between the companies, but what I'm hearing from other IT professionals is that the Microsoft representatives on their accounts are no longer completely hostile to the IBM solution. This has yet to take on much real form in terms of products and services, but clearly the rhetoric has been toned down.

NT has been the catalyst for this recent increase in dialogue and understanding. Back when Microsoft was focused on the PC space and IBM was focused on large systems, it was easy for the companies to lob shells at each other, each working separate parts of the IT organisation. However, with NT there is more overlap in the marketing and selling activities and, in many cases, calls on the same teams of IT professionals.

Both Microsoft and IBM know that it is far less productive to try to screw up each other than it is to try to give the IT professionals ways to work with both.

How long can the truce last? The strain will be greatest in the short term as Merced's delay exacerbates the situation. Yet both companies have found that customer realities make direct conflict unproductive.