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
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.
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.