Just when you think things can't possibly get any worse for computer, Internet and communications companies, reality hits you upside the head with a two-by-four. Veteran warrior Motorola sees its earnings crumble into losses. Last year's class valedictorian, Yahoo!, lays off 400 people...our entire litany of failures isn't worth reciting here.
In the meantime, Microsoft is taking us all to school.
In this week's cover story, Editor-at-Large Connie Guglielmo and Washington Bureau Chief Doug Brown examine the reaction of business and public-interest groups to HailStorm, Microsoft's controversial plan to act as the repository for everyone's personal online data. Scary stuff? Outrageously ambitious? You bet. And it's also a perfect example of the kind of vision that made Microsoft and Bill Gates industry leaders and kept them there for almost two decades.
We can resent its success, its power, its money. But give it this: While the rest of us desperately scrounge for any hint of a silver lining in these economic clouds, any sanctuary from the market tempest, cash-rich Microsoft has the luxury of calmly going about the business of inventing the future. And as much as the Gates-bashers of the world may foam at the mouth in resentment, this company has earned the right to mold tomorrow in its best interests. We don't have to like it. We don't have to roll over. But it's time we admitted that the problem is ours, not Microsoft's.
While the rest of the industry was distracted with the easy money of the dot-com bubble, Gates was at war. Playing Kung Fu Geek, he was building a dynasty even as he fought off competitors with his hands and the federal government with his feet, legs and arms flailing like some human tornado. This would be his Waterloo, everyone said. Too many battles on too many fronts would distract and ultimately destroy him.
Yet when the dust had settled, Netscape Communications was a brain-dead corpse on life support somewhere in the bowels of AOL Time Warner. David Boies, the brilliant litigator credited with winning the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, was off defending poor, hapless Napster, the dot-com era's ultimate lost cause. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who tried the case, had squandered his credibility and reputation for a few cheap quotes about the trial in the news media. Bill Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and the Department of Justice's antitrust chief, Joel Klein, were all history, and their replacements were demonstrating no appetite for attacking an island of prosperity in a sea of economic gloom.
In short, the battlefield lay littered with bodies, and Microsoft once again walked away triumphant. Those of us who whine about Bill the Bully deserve everything we get. It wasn't a bully who beat IBM at its own game. It wasn't a bully who outmaneuvered Corel, Digital Research, Lotus Development, Netscape, Novell and WordPerfect--to name just a few of his toughest adversaries. It wasn't a bully who reduced Apple Computer to an upscale boutique.
These were the deeds of a master strategist at the head of a superbly managed enterprise--an extremely aggressive strategist, to be sure, but aggression doesn't tell the whole story.
So while we'll inevitably go on whining about Microsoft's failings and ambitions--an indulgence to which this columnist readily confesses--it might be wise to set aside our resentment every once in a while to ruminate privately about the reasons for this company's uninterrupted success, about how it has managed to undo even its worst tactical errors, about how it has never failed to stay one step ahead of the market.
If any company or special-interest group is ever going to beat Gates, it will not be with the bitching, litigating, legislating and finger-pointing so rampant today. The only way to outmaneuver Microsoft is to learn from Microsoft.