Where does Microsoft want to go today? Certainly not where it was yesterday. Its new MSN Explorer represents a lifesaving change of direction.
As Microsoft celebrates its 25th birthday this month, it consistently ranks among the most admired corporations in the world, and much is rightly being made of how a little group of geeks, against all odds, built one of the world's mightiest companies. We're being regaled with tales of how cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen outfoxed the seemingly invincible IBM, then went on to lay waste to the software industry, felling or seriously wounding the likes of Ashton-Tate, Digital Research, FoxPro, Lotus Development, Novell, Norton, Stac, Supercalc, WordPerfect, Wordstar . . . the list goes on and on.
Gates and company made more than a few enemies as they wielded DOS/Windows to both attack and seduce an entire industry. But, by the time the smoke had cleared, they owned the operating system market for Intel-class machines, and their Office suite had all but eliminated competition in the business productivity market. Whatever you think of Microsoft's take-no-prisoners tactics, whatever you think of the quality of its software, its success has earned acclaim.
But if that were all Microsoft was ever to accomplish, this month's celebrations would be a corporate retirement party. The Internet has changed not just the rules of engagement but the very nature of the game. Tomorrow's software - operating systems and applications alike - will be defined less by the architectures of microprocessors than by the open spaces of the network. The competition will not just be other software companies but open-source products that defy traditional market tactics and network colossuses like America Online (or AOL-Time Warner), which are rapidly transforming the Internet from a computer communications tool into the uber-medium.
As recently as a year ago, Microsoft was in the throes of a midlife crisis - it was a shining definition of success that didn't know what it wanted to be when it grew up. Things have changed. Its .Net strategy, though more promise than product at this point, seems right on target. And the MSN browser, now ready for prime time, suggests that Microsoft will remain a contender for years to come.
In some quarters, this product is being dismissed as a belated attempt to match AOL's interface software. In fact, this is the Browser War, Part II, and Microsoft has just introduced a formidable new weapon to the conflagration.
MSN Explorer is an innovative piece of software - something of an AOL for grownups. It pairs a clean, simple, efficient interface with highly usable multimedia features and a remarkable set of communications tools for small businesses, organizations and individuals. Until now, the application service provider model has been aimed at niche markets. This product goes well beyond AOL in offering a glimpse of the potential for sophisticated online application services - from audio/video entertainment products to sophisticated business tools - for a mass audience.
Will it ever knock AOL out of first place as the world's leading online service? Not likely. But that's beside the point. Circumventing the paid-membership model, MSN Explorer demonstrates persuasively that, given the right user interface, software design and features, the public Internet can be every bit as comfortable and inviting as a proprietary online service. And AOL's 24 million-member user base pales in comparison with the total number of Internet users, any of whom can access the MSN portal and software.
MSN Explorer is a small step, to be sure, but a crucial one. It's where Microsoft wants to go today, to get to where it has to be tomorrow.