Anti-Competitive watch dogs and letting the market do its thing

I’m old enough to remember way back when Microsoft was being investigated by the DOJ under the Sherman Anti-trust Act (a variety of issues were raised during the investigation) and it is funny how Microsoft was seen as this massively powerful organisation that had the industry by the ‘short and curlies’ who was always a head of the curb when it came to the ‘next big thing’. Were there moments that Microsoft were behind the curb such as being late to the internet? sure but when they did arrive they made sure that any marketshare wasn’t lost – keeping in mind that when Internet Explorer first arrived on the scenes Microsoft embraced the open standards of the web and added to the standards must requested features that developers wanted where as Netscape were hell bent on not fixing the chronic bugginess of their product but instead adding proprietary extensions to open standards in a vein hope that it would lock the developer to Netscape’s own products.

Same can be said for Microsoft Office where up to that point there were no ‘office suites’ but rather a disjointed collection of software that were not integrated together; Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheet, Wordperfect or Wordstar for wordprocessing, Harvard Graphics for presentations, DBase for Database and Microsoft bought it all together in Microsoft where everything seemed to ‘just work’ together – the killer productivity suite of applications. Microsoft comes along and provides an end to end solution for all the needs of a business (both big and small) as well as making an entrance into the home user market. Anyone from that era would remember the price tag of the individual applications and the price of Office, which included all of that, was a bargain and within the reach of consumers wanting to work from home.

When Windows 95 when it was released delivered the sort of technology never seen in the consumer space; 32bit protected memory, pre-emptive multi-tasking, built in support for TCP/IP etc. and for some it became the butt of jokes but back then it was a massive leap forward particularly when compared to the alternatives that existed which were either too expensive, too complex and/or too demanding when it came to hardware specifications. Combine that with hardware support that is deep and wide which opened up a wide variety of hardware that one could purchase at ever cheaper prices it allowed the ‘computer revolution’ to take off with computers being accessible at all variety of price points – from massive number crunches to ones that allow Joe and Jane to share family memories via email with loved ones.

I’m sure others can give more examples but the basic idea is this; Microsoft historically was either on the cusp of the change or the one making the change itself. This is what made Microsoft a threat and the belief by many (including myself) which necessitating the need for government intervention to ‘restore balance to the marketplace’ because the idea that the marketplace via a ‘knight in shining armour’ to slay the mighty Microsoft beast wasn’t going to happen. What ended up happening? The DOJ received less funding after GWB was voted in resulting in the DOJ having to cut its losses then combine that with Judge Jacksons comments which tainted his ruling which necessitated an out of court settlement. The settlement involving oversight was seen as pretty weak which meant that there was much expectation that Microsoft would hold on and then go back to business as usual once the oversight was taken off them but no one expected the growth of smartphones, tablets, iOS and Android not to mention the investment by Google beyond services into Chrome, ChromeOS, ChromeCast.

Here we are fast forward to today and there we have Apple taking down the high end of the tablet, smartphone and computer market with their own offers with Google coming up from the bottom end using Android and ChromeOS to eat into the low end of the market. Recent developments has been the ability to run Android applications on Chrome and ChromeOS (the current beta is missing features but they’ll be added I’m sure when the final version starts shipping) which leads the way open to end users eventually being able to run Microsoft Office for Android on ChromeOS. First it was Microsoft developing Office for more than just Windows by making sure that the Mac version wasn’t the bastard red head step child of the family along with supporting iOS and Android then secondly making sure that the rest of the organisation’s potential growth wasn’t being hamstrung by having it held by by Windows being propped up by making things exclusively Windows only – leveraging the dominance in one market to re-enforce the dominance in another.

Windows division at this stage is more or less being told, “mate, you’re on your own – you’re going to have to sink or swim based on the merits of your product rather than using surrounding products and services as leverage to propel your own sales”. Microsoft in their server and services division are doing some interesting things with Windows but outside of those two areas Windows is a complete mess particularly in the consumer space and the corporate section holds onto it because of legacy reasons and really a lack of a viable alternative that ticks all those main boxes that corporates want/need. That being said, if Google does work hard when it comes to Android and ChromeOS particularly in the context of Windows in many organisations is merely a means to access web services rather than it being a launch pad itself to run applications – a glorified thin client if you will.

Going forward are we going to see Windows pretty much relegated to the enterprise market leaving the consumer market to be fought over between Apple and Google? Android becomes the ‘the framework’ on which developers can get their Android applications to work on laptops and desktops running ChromeOS? Surface and Surface Pro bringing a larger amount of revenue to offset reduced Windows revenue from OEM’s and retail channels? It appears that Microsoft being delivering too little too late has done more to undermine their market position than any sort of regulatory oversight – that the marketplace is changing and Microsoft is having to sacrifice their Windows marketshare to allow the rest of the company to grow and thrive.

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