IT's Like This: MS v MP3...

Back when I used to program Cobol, IBM was the company to hate. They were arrogant, self-righteous and bloated.

Back when I used to program Cobol, IBM was the company to hate. They were arrogant, self-righteous and bloated. They had such a lock on the customer that service was a joke. Some folks swore by them, and others would let them in only over their dead body.

Back then, Microsoft was a smart and aggressive startup, one that made all the right moves. Now, 20 years later, Microsoft looks a lot like Big Blue did back in the early eighties. A bloated and overly self-important blob.

IT is also split over Microsoft just as they had been split over IBM. Some require a Microsoft-only infrastructure, while others won't even let big green in the door. And just like IBM took a big tumble in the mid eighties, Microsoft's poised for the same fall.

Just look at Windows. They've been promising that NT would be the corporate systems saviour for years, but Windows 2000 still sits in the beta pool. Corporate customers are increasingly looking at alternatives like Linux, which is akin to Pat Robertson taking advice from Wavy Gravy. Microsoft's also developing another version of windows that will co-exist with NT server, NT client, Windows 98, WebTV and Windows CE. Does the world really need more flavours of Windows than Ben and Jerry's ice cream?

IBM missed the world-changing event that became personal computing. Sure they played a part, but they lost out to smaller, more focused companies. And Microsoft is currently missing out on the shift to Internet-centric computing devices. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their new audio format meant to crush MP-3. Microsoft launched their new audio format last Tuesday with a big bash at the House of Blues in LA. But I know to read between the lines. It's typical Microsoft: When you want to take over a market, throw a big high-profile party. Numerous technical demos purporting to show the advantage of Microsoft's new standard will unfold. An army of brightly scrubbed Microsoft marketing and PR folks will be spinning madly. "Our technology is twice as fast," they'll cry. "Our technology sounds twice as good," they'll gloat. "Better, better, better," they'll scream. And then they'll pull out the old trump card: "And, we're going to add support for our technology in Windows and Internet Explorer."

But unlike when they took over the OS market, the apps market and the browser market, this attempt will fail. Because Microsoft has missed the fundamental elements of this market. MP-3 has a huge advantage. It's been accepted by Internet music-lovers worldwide. It's reached a critical mass of content developers making music. And the raft of new players lock the format in.

MP-3 is one of the first computer standards that doesn't need windows to live. The new players are small, cheap and sound pretty good. MP-3 is the second most searched for term on the Net. It's becoming the high-fidelity lingua franca.

Microsoft still thinks it can dominate the market with perhaps slightly better technology, a marketing jugernaut, and complete disregard for current standards. They plan to use the windows/IE club to beat MP-3 senseless. But it won't work. The Internet has decided, and MP-3 is the winner.

If Microsoft were truly the nimble company of old, they would have embraced MP-3 and made the best darn MP-3 products on the market. They would have spent some up-front time with the music industry, taking their concerns into account. They would have gotten in front of the standard and made it great.

Instead, they see every problem as a nail, with Windows/IE as the club. But that tired old club just doesn't cut it in the emerging Internet infrastructure. Microsoft has lost touch with users, lost touch with computing, and become arrogant. And like IBM, Microsoft's fall will be hard. But unlike IBM, Microsoft may not be able to revive itself from the ashes.

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