Barney's Rubble

The Vision Thing

Microsoft should keep shooting for the stars, even if it only reaches a few.

Maybe I'm just old, but I've been subjected to dozens, hundreds or perhaps even thousands of computer industry "visions." It seems you can't do a keynote at the East Oshkosh FoxPro user group meeting without making some sort of grand proclamation about the future.

The biggest and boldest are reserved for the largest shows. You can't help but think those speakers intend to do nothing less than change the world. Ten times out of ten nothing happens.

Microsoft is the master at this game of manipulation. Speech after speech, people line up and actually listen. It's easy to make fun of this charade and certainly not every Redmond proclamation rings true, but Microsoft is doing something I haven't seen any other vendor pull off for a long, long time—if ever. That is to lay out a broad, grand, evolving vision that has more than a snowball's chance of being realized.

For comparison's sake, let's look at some of the competition's grand pronouncements and prophecies:

Oracle: Larry Ellison boldly promoted the Network Computer (NC), a zero-intelligence Internet screen scraper that would sell for as little as $200. Uneven Internet bandwidth was one problem. Citrix and Microsoft thin clients were another, but the real killer was full-powered PCs that gave NCs a beating worthy of Bruce Lee. This vision died a painful, public death and Ellison has been uncharacteristically quiet about his pronouncements ever since.

Doug Barney Sun: Scott McNealy is a true character and has made, oh, about 10 times as many forward-looking, visionary speeches as Larry. Scott always seems to have a fuller vision. He also backed the Network Computer. Actually, he still does. McNealy calls his the SunRay. The Sun chief took things further with Java—the write once, run anywhere Web services computing paradigm. This is cool too, but in both cases, the real questions are, "Does this fundamentally change or advance computing? What can we do now that we couldn't before?"

IBM: Being the largest computer company ever (so far), IBM has had a lot of visions, few of them truly grand. Its goal today is to sell you what you want or what IBM consultants can convince you that you need. This isn't bad, but it sure ain't vision.

HP/Compaq: The product of a monumental match-up, this conglomerate has produced some amazing equipment, but how does it plan to change the world? It may have ideas, but none have reached the masses.

Apple: Steve Jobs is no spring chicken. Like Ozzy Osbourne, though, he manages to still appear ultra cool. Jobs has provided great tunes and a slick stable of PCs and laptops, but will Apple's technology change the world? Not so far.

That leaves Microsoft, which believes in a PC on every desk, a computer for every person, information at our finger tips, the new world of work, natural language and so much more it is difficult to remember it all. It doesn't always execute, but Redmond always shoots high. It always has a plan to at least try to fulfill its vision. I say Microsoft should keep reaching for the stars, even if it only reaches a few.

What do you think? Write me at

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.


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