Microsoft's vigilance makes it king of the desktop

The information technology architectures of most offices, including those of federal
agencies, are written in Washington—Redmond, Wash., that is.


Microsoft Corp. supplies 95 percent of all desktop PC operating systems and a majority
of the software titles installed on them.


Microsoft Windows NT networks are challenging Novell Inc. and other competitors in the
LAN market. Microsoft has nearly wrested the browser market from Netscape Communications
Corp. The integration of Windows 98 and Internet Explorer into a seamless desktop
environment promises to bring the world to every PC user.


As a standards officer, I resisted this juggernaut for nearly 10 years through my
committee chairmanship in the Open System Interconnection Workshop at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology.


We expanded the workshop into the Open Systems Environment Workshop, adding Posix and
other standards efforts along the way. Despite thousands of hours of work by these
committees, most of the federal agencies we represented, like the market at large,
continued to ignore open systems in favor of the de facto standard from Microsoft.


It makes me wonder about Microsoft’s triumph, about how the company came to
dominate the market for desktop computing. Plenty of pundits have commented on the rise of
Microsoft and its leader, now the wealthiest man on Earth. Not having an inside view into
Redmond, I can only infer the basis for Microsoft’s ascendancy from my
inside-the-Beltway perspective.


One reason is that Microsoft pays careful attention to the usability of its products,
conducting extensive user-software interaction studies. The company is willing to make
significant changes to increase customer comfort levels.


That’s why, for example, the icon sets and shortcut keys are consistent across
products. The cut, copy and paste buttons are identical for the company’s Word,
Excel, Access and other applications.


Microsoft also uses a look-alike approach to help customers learn to use new products.
A recent example is its Visual Interdev for Web site development. It is the spitting image
of Visual Basic Enterprise, a programming language developed by Microsoft.


Clearly, Microsoft wants to make it easy and comfortable for Visual Basic programmers
to make the move to the Web.


The phrase embrace-and-extend seems to best describe Microsoft’s philosophy, even
if the company has put it on hold during the antitrust battle. Bill Gates learned more
from IBM Corp.’s near collapse than perhaps even IBM learned. Gates is ever-vigilant
for the promise and the threat of every new technology. As a consequence, Microsoft is
ready not only to absorb the new, but to control it.


The Internet is perhaps the most important challenge the company has faced. Use of the
Internet promises to reduce the complexity of PCs by moving applications and operating
systems from the desktop to remote host computers.


Java programs can download these software resources on demand onto nearly any computer
on the Internet. If customers can get new word processors, spreadsheets, databases and
operating systems when they need them, why endure the confusion and mystery of
Windows’ infamous directory system?


Gates’ response to the growth of the Internet was to face the challenge head-on.
Rarely do we see a large corporation make such a major course correction so quickly. It
took the company only two years to attain a major share of the Internet software market.
In 1994 and 1995, the Internet was a third-party add-on to Windows 3.x. By 1998, Internet
Explorer, as an integral part of Windows 95 and Windows 98, sparked a Justice Department
lawsuit.


Microsoft embraced the Internet just as demand exploded. Participation on the Internet
has doubled every year; it’s axiomatic that in any given year, half the folks on the
Internet are newbies.


As the Internet penetrated the economy, this growth might have become difficult to
sustain. But Microsoft made it easy for anyone with a PC and telephone line to get on the
Internet.


In fact, many old hands on the Internet worry that demand will swamp the Net they once
knew and loved.


If innovation is the work of the small entrepreneur, volume adoption is the work of the
large business. Using monopoly power comes naturally to a monopoly, like eating does to a
shark.


Despite the treacherous currents of computing technology, Bill Gates has adroitly
navigated his company into new and promising markets. His success has inevitably brought
him into conflict with the Justice Department. n


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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