How Many Microsofts?

Maybe they already broke up the company and we didn’t notice.

By the time you read this, the second remedy trial in the long-running Microsoft antitrust suit should be done, with Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly having decided what Microsoft needs to do to be in compliance with Federal law. As of today (Auntie’s editors insisting, as they do, on seeing this column well in advance of its print date), this smart money says that the judge won’t order Microsoft broken up into multiple companies.

“Oh, no,” I can hear you thinking, “she’s going to talk about that trial again!” Well, no. Auntie agrees with her dear readers that there’s been enough ink spilled on that particular subject (and then some). Nevermind that some of it was spilled right here at Chez Auntie. No, what I wanted to talk about was the Microsoft breakup. You know, the one that’s already happening.

Next time you’re in Redmond, visit the Microsoft campus. There, tucked away in one corner, are Buildings 1 through 6, the old heart of the operation. Fabio and I took a short stroll there during a break in the supersecret Microsoft “Bassoon” press briefing this morning. When that was all to Microsoft there was, you could walk from any office to any other in five minutes, even stopping for a bit of soccer in the hallway.

Now, though, there are hundreds of Microsoft buildings around the world, and more pop up every day. It’s no longer possible to point to one spot and say “Here’s Microsoft.” Instead, there are dozens of Microsofts, as comfortable together as a sack of alley cats.

As a certified professional, you probably think of the company as having four major parts: Windows, Office, BackOffice (er, excuse me, .NET Servers), and development tools. After all, those are the things you can get certified on. Well, how about all those other products? Great Plains, Visio, the Microsoft Games line, Encarta, Greetings, the Magic School Bus, the Sidewinder input devices, UltimateTV… the list goes on. Microsoft just spent more than a billion dollars buying Navision, a Danish firm that few of us in the U.S. ever heard of.

Want more evidence of multiple Microsofts? It’s clear that even the people in the certifiable products don’t talk to each other. The most recent Internet Explorer security patch, for instance, goofs up some fonts in Outlook. MDAC updates aren’t compatible with SQL Server clustering. Different server products won’t run on the same machine thanks to conflicting hotfix requirements. Consider, too, the internal struggles that we only hear about when some executive retires “to pursue other interests.” Remember NetDocs, the product that was going to replace Office with a bunch of Web code? Nope, neither does anyone else.

Back in her salad days, Auntie took some B-school courses; she still remembers the story of ITT. Through mergers and acquisitions, that classic conglomerate picked up more than 150 companies in the 1960s and started boasting that its operations extended “from the Arctic to the Antarctic and quite literally from the bottom of the sea to the moon.” (Sound like any other company you know?) But after 15 years of attempting to turn a profit as a conglomerate, ITT gave up and started selling everything off in the hope of finding a core business to concentrate on. (It didn’t find one; in 1997, ITT itself was bought by its own Sheraton hotels business).

Harold Geneen, the driving force behind ITT’s conglomeration, once said, “The worst disease which can afflict executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it’s egotism.” Microsoft may look like a single huge company that triumphed over an attempt to rend it asunder. But look a little deeper, and perhaps you’ll agree that the breakup is already in process.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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