Buyer, be aware -

On a recent television drama, there was a brief reference to one-time assistant
attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach. Remember him? He's the guy who filed the IBM Corp.
antitrust case on the last day of the Johnson administration. He later became a legal gun
for Big Blue.


How times change. As late as eight years ago, the pundits were wringing their hands
over the unstoppability of IBM. Then came years of turmoil, shrinking market share and
losses. IBM is again highly profitable, but no one thinks of it as the industry gorilla.


Now it is Microsoft Corp. that everyone says is unstoppable. Like IBM at one time, the
software giant is charged with monopolizing the PC software market, stifling innovation
and using unfair trade practices. The company is the subject of what seem to be
never-ending Justice Department probes.


The latest flap turns on whether the upcoming Microsoft Windows 98 and the Internet
Explorer browser are so tightly coupled as to exclude use of rival Netscape Communications
Corp.'s products. Microsoft claims that Netscape is spreading false rumors that Win98 will
disable functions in Netscape Navigator.


Debates about Microsoft could go on indefinitely. The company looms large over the
computer industry. Its dominance makes people particularly nervous as everyone scrambles
to incorporate the Internet into their computing architectures.


But as customers, let's not forget a couple of basic economic facts. One, for a variety
of reasons--technology, competition, corporate complacency and exchange rates--fortunes
change for even seemingly invulnerable companies.


Ask General Motors, Macy's or McDonald's. Not that Microsoft will go bankrupt anytime
soon. It's just that companies, like families or nations, have ebbs and flows in their
histories.


Two, customers have choices. Microsoft isn't like New York City trash haulers. It might
be hard to imagine adopting operating systems other than Microsoft's for all the desktops
in a large organization. But there are OSes that compete with Microsoft's, just as there
are competing office suites, World Wide Web tools and development environments. All sorts
of nascent technological efforts promise more competition in the future.


Who knows who's right in the Microsoft-Netscape finger-pointing. What matters in
specifying products is who's got the goods to get the job done.


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