What if Microsoft had become Micro and Soft?

It has been over 7 years since Judge Jackson issued his order for Microsoft to be broken up into an applications and a operating system business. Due to various complications, that never came to pass. But what if it had? What would the computer world look like today?

The break-up idea was designed to force Microsoft to develop applications that would run on platforms other than Windows. In the process, Windows would have to compete more aggressively to convince consumers and businesses that it was the operating system of choice. This competition might have taken a little time to start but within a few years, we would likely have seen some opening up of the platform.

Now it’s a mugs game to speculate on what all this would have meant but let me give it a go. First, let’s consider the operating system market. Windows competes with Apple’s OS X and Linux. The applications part of Microsoft would have moved more rapidly to universalise its applications for those systems; boosting their share of the market. But it would also have moved more rapidly to be system independent — say for a browser-based suite. Google may not have been first to that market. All this adds up to healthy prospects for the applications business of Microsoft; perhaps a better position than they currently enjoy there.

But that boost to other operating systems may not have lasted long. They enjoy the position they do today because of the weakness of Windows. If Windows was forced to become more stable, innovative and complete they would face much more competition. Indeed, one could imagine that the prospects for an open source operating system such as Linux may be dim today.

What of the applications market? Well, now Microsoft would also have to make its operating system easier for developers to write for it. That would have allowed entry there and lower the price of Microsoft applications such as office and also its business software too. So we would have better quality and a greater variety of applications. What is more, incentives to build market share would have improved inter-operability and so users could switch between application more easily.

In the new world, it seems to me that the big loser from all this would have been Apple — facing a rival that wasn’t driving customers away through complacency — and the big winner would be Intel — boosting all of its sales because software issues were being resolved more readily. And for consumers, apart from some lower prices, at least for software, and some reduced overall frustrations, would much have really changed? I don’t know but as I contemplate my laptop woes this week, I still long for the opportunity to have found out.

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[…] Over at Club Troppo, I contemplate what the world would have been like today had Microsoft been broken up. […]

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

My take on it is slightly different. Seven years ago was too late to have much of an effect on the computer industry at all. Seventeen years ago, breaking up Microsoft might have altered the landscape profoundly but they didn’t have a monopoly back then. Having observed and worked in the industry since the the late eighties, the one common thread that has emerged is that genuine innovations in computer technology simply don’t occur without a total swamping of competition. Wordperfect used to be the unassailable king of typewriter replacement and Lotus 1-2-3 was a must-have application. Microsoft decimated them both with better replacements.

I honestly think we wouldn’t have Linux without Microsoft (massive vacuum of unsatisfied geeks who built their own alternative rather than put up with the status quo). I’m not sure I’d agree Apple would be a loser either, they likely would be very different (i.e. perhaps the incentive to switch to Intel chips may not have been as great and their incentive to develop the Ipod not as great either).

Really, I think the whole market was just too mature by 2000 to have been much affected if Microsoft were broken up. The inter-operability of many workplaces running the same software is too much of a benefit for everybody to give up. They didn’t win everything (arguably, they lost the most important battle of all: web standards). That they don’t dominate all slices of the market means their dominance in office applications is largely irrelevent. Still, the more criminal aspects of their behaviour could have been punished more effectively.

14 years ago

I read somewhere this week that ASUS is releasing a $US299 laptop installed with the latest desktop edition of Ubuntu. My guess is that the dominance of the Evil Empire (Microsoft) will diminish over the next decade as they become just another vendor of OS/Applications.

Because of my reliance on IT professionally, I don’t use Ubuntu on my own laptop at this stage, but it is a slick package with ready access to all manner of free OpenSource applications. For the average punter who needs Office applications, internet, email, some basic audio, video and image manipulation, Ubuntu provides it all free of charge, fits on a single CD, with a computing resource footprint a fraction of that required to run Vista. A laptop with only half the power and resources can do it all at twice the speed – hence the cheap ASUS deal.

Presently, OpenSource is problematic with specialist software, but this too will change in time. It will be interesting to see the first commercial Linux application release from someone like Adobe.

In my profession, people are building amazing inventive, flexible and extensible OpenSource applications, yet the DEECV, formerly known as DE&T, are about to splurge $60million on a pie-in-the-sky ‘killer’ platform called Ultranet, more than likely using an Oracle backend with processing and presentation handled by MS ASP. It won’t even be ready before 2011 and the whole world will have moved on to another generation of IT innovation by then. As much as 60% of the Ultranet functionality is already provided by Moodle for eg (a great Australian invention) and used by more than 300,000 educational institutions world-wide. If Moodle doesn’t do what you want, hire a code jockey to build a module or roll your own if you ar geekily inclined. I offered to build an OpenSource Ultranet for only $6million, but they haven’t got back to me yet.

I do have a soft spot for MS – hey how many of us can say they used Windows 1.0?? I believe their virtual monopoly was the single most important factor which led to the explosion of personal computing – for the simple reason that they provided a standard platform for others to build on. But I suspect MS is close to outliving its usefulness. It contains something like 20,000,000 lines of code.

Its relentless intent on being helpful is now just an annoyance – I can see you just deleted a user profile, but clearly you didn’t really mean to do that, after all why would anyone want to do that, so when the user logs back in again, we’ll give you old one back! I also have a growing suspicion that when I execute a function in MS there is some kind of meeting organised between dozens of dll files checking with each other if it’s OK to execute the request, creating adhoc subcommittees which consider all the alternatives before coming up to a consensus. Our domain servers take about 7 minutes to reboot and settle down. Our Ubuntu webserver reboots and settles in about 90 sec. Win Server updates always require a restart and take anything up to 20 minutes to find, install and reboot. I update the Ubuntu Webserver each week, and my best time so far is about 35 seconds – and no reboot.

Unless I am mistaken, the French decided some years back to abandon MS in its public schools in favour of OpenSource platforms and applications and no doubt saved squillions in the process.

Finally, I suspect the future growth area of computing lies in the development of platformless distributed applications through the www and virtual server technology. Google Apps are an example of where this heading.

14 years ago

Re MS ‘web standards’ – IE is the bane of every web developer because they won’t play compliantly. And now you’ve got me started on standards, I was angered to discover that my new Bluetooth Nokia mobile last year would not play with my IBM WinXP. Google told me that Microsoft Bluetooth driver is incompatible with Nokia!! WTF?? Bluetooth is a UNIVERSAL STANDARD for chrissakes! But Microsoft says ‘No’.

There, I feel better now.

Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago

They enjoy the position they do today because of the weakness of Windows. If Windows was forced to become more stable, innovative and complete they would face much more competition.

Microsoft would mostly like to be able to build better software but it can’t. I can see why incentives to build better software would have been intensified, but given that they mostly exist at present, I can’t see why the intensified incentives would make them any better at making software.

14 years ago

A couple of points…

Firstly, Microsoft would also have to make its operating system easier for developers

Windows is actually very easy to write GUI applications for. Developer tools have always been a Microsoft strength. IIRC, they were selling a version of BASIC in the days before DOS. Even back as far as 2000 Visual Studio was a pretty impressive.

Regarding Linux, there would always be a market for a free UNIX, if it wasn’t Linux it would have been FreeBSD.

My own opinion is that the big impact of a breakup would have been on the web. On the one hand there would have been more pressure for Microsoft to make IE standards compliant which would have spurred web application development. On the other hand, if there weren’t monopoly profits to protect would Microsoft have put so much effort into building a web browser when it generated no revenue?

A general side note, I ran Linux as my primary OS through Redhat 5.2 to Fedora. These days however all I need are a Citrix client, an SSH client and Firefox, all of which are cross platform. I think the days of caring about operating systems are over.

D W Griffiths
D W Griffiths
14 years ago

And hello to Josh from all of us.

My main insight here is to recommend an essay by the world’s best thinker about software, Paul Graham. See Microsoft is dead. Graham’s thesis is that Microsoft doesn’t matter any more. Given the lags involved, this suggests splitting Microsoft in 2000 would have made little difference.

Graham’s essay starts:

A few days ago I suddenly realized Microsoft was dead. I was talking to a young startup founder about how Google was different from Yahoo. I said that Yahoo had been warped from the start by their fear of Microsoft. That was why they’d positioned themselves as a “media company” instead of a technology company. Then I looked at his face and realized he didn’t understand. It was as if I’d told him how much girls liked Barry Manilow in the mid 80s. Barry who?

Microsoft? He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he didn’t quite believe anyone would be frightened of them.

Microsoft cast a shadow over the software world for almost 20 years starting in the late 80s. I can remember when it was IBM before them. I mostly ignored this shadow. I never used Microsoft software, so it only affected me indirectlyfor example, in the spam I got from botnets. And because I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t notice when the shadow disappeared.

But it’s gone now. I can sense that. No one is even afraid of Microsoft anymore. They still make a lot of money so does IBM, for that matter. But they’re not dangerous.

That said, here are my wild guesses about a split Microsoft:

* The Windows side would have spent a lot of time doing what they’re doing anyway – trying to make the existing Windows prettier and faster. My guess is that this activity has pretty marginal returns, but I could be wrong.

* The Windows side might also have started to think harder about the firms that are adding value to Windows most efficiently, none of which is Microsoft: Copernic (file search), SpamBayes for Outlook, Lookout (Outlook search) and so on. But I’m not sure this would have made much difference – Microsoft actually bought the Lookout business, but hasn’t done much with the technology.

* The biggest potential change on the Windows side is that the Windows people might have been tempted to depart from their mantra of enormous backwards compatibility and put together a new-from-the-ground-up OS. This really would have required both a huge change of attitude and a huge effort, though. OSs don’t appear that often. Even Apple’s Mac OS X is built on top of BSD UNIX, which is an old OS.

* My bet is that more of the likely changes from a split Microsoft would have been in the behaviour of the Office branch.

* Office functionality might have migrated online faster. Excel is one app that might benefit from more online integration. Then again, you can argue that an Office division would be even more paranoid about keeping all the Office functionality inside the PC/local network.

* Office might well have bought more outside apps. The last thing Microsoft bought of any consequence was Hotmail, about a decade ago.

* One perverse result might have been that Apple spent more time working on their PC rival and less time thinking about how to go around them and create a whole new computing form factor – the iPod.

Consumer warning: This comment contains big guesses and wild speculation.

14 years ago

Unless I am mistaken, the French decided some years back to abandon MS in its public schools in favour of OpenSource platforms and applications and no doubt saved squillions in the process.

I doubt the conclusion, irrespective of the abstract merits. The French education system hasn’t missed a chance to spend more money in 25-35 years, I doubt they missed this one. They probably required every teacher to be trained in MS just before the decision mentioned.