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7/18/2014
09:35 AM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Microsoft Shows Tech 'Monopolies' Don't Last

As nature abhors a vacuum, innovators abhor a monopoly, especially in the fast-paced IT industry.

In handing down his landmark antitrust decision against Microsoft in 2000, US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson wrote: "There are currently no products -- and there are not likely to be any in the near future -- that a significant percentage of computer users worldwide could substitute for Intel-compatible PC operating systems without incurring substantial costs." At the time, Windows commanded about 90% of the desktop operating system market. The competition? Mostly Unix and MacOS and a handful of thin clients.

Today, Windows' share of the market for operating systems on all computing devices -- PCs, smartphones, tablets, and all manner of hybrids -- stands at about 14%, according to a new Gartner report. Who’d have thunk it back in 2000? And Microsoft's loosening grip over the years has had absolutely nothing to do with the government's antitrust proceedings more than a decade ago. Microsoft's announcement Thursday that it's cutting 18,000 jobs from its payroll, the largest such reduction in company history, shows just how vulnerable the world's biggest software company has become as competitors from Apple to Google to Amazon.com have eaten its lunch in mobile and other core businesses.

If nature abhors a vacuum, innovators abhor a monopoly, especially in the fast-paced IT industry.

[More challenges ahead for Windows Phone. Read Apple-IBM Deal: Trouble For Google, Microsoft.]

We've seen the free market knock down dominant tech providers before. The government's 13-year antitrust probe of IBM (yes, 13 years!) petered out in 1982, as the mainframe era ushered in the client-server era, and a wave of PC clone and then minicomputer makers flooded into the market to challenge Big Blue. Governments in the US, Europe, and Asia brought antitrust charges against Intel in the 1990s and 2000s, just as No. 2 microprocessor rival AMD was getting its second wind, and then the likes of ARM, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and even Samsung beat Intel to the mobile device revolution. 

(Source: Crispin Semmens)
(Source: Crispin Semmens)

EMC once dominated storage hardware, until lots of new players piled into the market hawking cheaper, less proprietary alternatives. Today, EMC is still the storage market leader, with a 30%-plus share of key sectors. And storage products and services still account for about 70% of EMC's revenue. But the company, which long ago saw the commoditization writing on the wall, was smart enough to start distinguishing its products based on software features while diversifying into the content management, security, virtualization, and big-data software sectors via its Documentum, RSA, VMware, Greenplum (and many other) acquisitions. The announcement on July 15 that cloud competitor Box is now giving its business customers unlimited storage as part of its base content management offering provides further evidence that raw storage capacity is going the way of voice communications.

Cisco once dominated the networking systems market -- heck, it still does, with close to 60% of the Ethernet switch market and 70% of the enterprise router market. But commoditization is coming in networking as well, as virtualization and software-defined systems promise to make it easier for customers to deploy cheaper white-box alternatives to Cisco's high-end products. Meantime, the Facebook-led Open Compute Project will share designs for low-cost network hardware that any number of third-party manufacturers can bring to market. No wonder that Cisco's market cap, which reflects future earnings potential more than current levels, is about a fourth of what it was at its tremendous peak ($540 billion) in 2000, despite the fact that Cisco's 60% gross profit margins are still the envy of enterprise IT.

Likewise, emerging competition has cut into HP's one-time dominance in printers, Oracle's in databases, VMware's in virtualization, Apple's in tablets. No IT "monopoly" can last for very long.

The Microsoft, IBM, Intel, and other examples are far different from what economists call "natural" monopolies, which occur in the telecom, railroad, electric utility, and other industries whose extensive infrastructure costs and real estate demands deter market entry. There, government intervention and regulation often are necessary to promote competition (sharing of infrastructure with competitors) and/or to keep prices in check.

Otherwise, the free market has a way of sorting things out -- faster than ever in this day and age. Government trustbusters work at a methodical, measured pace. While they're no longer taking 13 years to make a move, as was the case with IBM a few decades ago, they aren't always keeping up with or anticipating the dramatic fits and starts of the modern technology industry. Market shares can rise and fall in a heartbeat as product cycles shorten, the cloud makes it ever-easier for customers to switch providers, and rapid innovation dictates new winners and losers. Free enterprise is far from a perfect system, but in high-tech it's producing wonders.

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Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech ... View Full Bio
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danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
7/20/2014 | 5:23:20 PM
Re: staying ahead
I think that in terms of the general marketplace, there isn't one single thing that Microsoft did to get to this point. 

The reality is that venture capital is looking for ways to disrupt the software industry, and companies like Box, Google and Facebook have been large recipients of those cash flows. VC is what creates new businesses that are constantly challenging Microsoft in the software market, especially in the enterprise sector. 
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/19/2014 | 4:16:55 PM
Re: Absolutely nothing?
You have provided great examples that no single company, even the largeone can dominate the market forever.  Sooner or later their dominance will face stiff competition from new competitors.  While such competitors bring new ideas to the market.  Monopolies tend to defend rather than innovate.
stevew928
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stevew928,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 6:07:40 PM
Re: Absolutely nothing?
I'm pretty sure they had a decent amont of profit coming in and a billion or two in cash on hand. Had Microsoft pulled the plug on Mac Office, it certainly would have made things difficult for Apple. The money was probably more to settle the suits between them, but spinning it as an investment did more for PR purposes for both of them, and the general public and media who *thought* Apple was going under.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 5:40:47 PM
Re: Monopolies incur "protected," not competitive, thinking inside
Pretty much.  The strenuous efforts of the Ballmer years to protect Windows and Office from competition reflected just that mindset.  I'm even willing to think that those very efforts hindered MS' ability to develop and market new products (as almost all new initiatives were defensive in nature; or carefully designed to undermine the business models of companies deemed threatening, even if they weren't direct competitors).  MS was, as far as I could tell, the very first company to seriously promote tablets (probably the most innovative move MS has made in the last 18 years or so), yet the effort went almost nowhere (I've never used a TabletPC and am given to understand that I am fortunate in that regard).

Steve Ballmer did his company a disservice by wasting time and energy trying to undo the antitrust cases and restore the 1990s; instead of moving forward as best he could in the new environment.  His appointment as President of MS was Bill Gates' biggest mistake.

 
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
7/18/2014 | 4:59:38 PM
Monopolies incur "protected," not competitive, thinking inside
Getting an early monopoly in a technology market may be a guarantee of a great run for 15-20 years, then sure decline afterward. Monopolies induce favored-positiion thinking, not compete with the best in the marketplace thinking. Satya Nadella is trying to turn that around at Microsoft and it's a Herculean task. Microsoft simply isn't geared to compete in the mobile market. The cloud market may yet slip away from it if Linux and open source in the cloud gain further ground on Windows.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
7/18/2014 | 4:48:05 PM
Re: Absolutely nothing?
Tom, reading this I see that the anti-trust ruling left Microsoft more bruised and battered than I thought, and that companies were freer to innovate without Microsoft strong-arming them. Thanks for the perspective and good examples.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 4:44:42 PM
Re: Absolutely nothing?
To be clear, while Steve Jobs' reputation when he returned to Apple was much better than when he left it, it wasn't anywhere near what it was at the time of his death (by which time he was seen as a modern Midas).  Just before the bail-out there was very serious talk in the tech media that Apple was close to bankruptcy.  The Steve Jobs of 2010 would have had no trouble asking a bank for a loan to tide the company over pending the release of a hot new product and getting it (but the chance of his needing one would have been close to zero); I don't think that could have been reasonably said of the Steve Jobs of 1997.  Apple might have survived without MS' aid on the strength of Jobs' considerable charisma and creativity, and much improved management skills; but I'm not convinced it would have been enough.

 
stevew928
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stevew928,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 4:12:11 PM
Re: Absolutely nothing?
But, I think the anti-trust broke their key to success, which was using their monopoly powers to lock people into their stagnent stuff. Once that was broken, they started to die the death of a thousand paper cuts until a real industry shift happend, which a non-innovative company can't handle. If not for the anti-trust, it's hard to say how powerful of an impact could have been mustered against them. Also, don't forget Microsoft WAS going after the various markets of the mobile era, they were just not good efforts (which was typical... the monopoly just enabled forced success).
stevew928
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stevew928,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 4:04:22 PM
Re: Absolutely nothing?
I very much agree with what you're saying. I might just take exception with the comment about Microsoft rescuing Apple. In some sense, that is the case as they were about to cut off the Mac version of Office, which would have hurt Apple's future quite a bit. On the other hand, the pittance of an investment was just a public gesture move, as Apple was in pretty good financial shape.

The biggest factor in Apple's success was Jobs coming back and getting the industry-expert-idiot-CEOs out of the way. Apple had great stuff, which means great people working on products. But the leadership kept making one daft decision after another (often in alignment with what all the tech-experts were saying they should do). I'm guessing there *HAS* to be some good tallent at Microsoft as well, so maybe their future will be brighter now that at least some of the idiots are out of the way there too? We'll see.

People like to use 'free-markets' as a buzz-word a lot, but what is often misunderstood, is that free doesn't mean 'hands off' but an environment where proper freedoms and regulations keep human-nature in check. A corrupt market isn't a free market.
stevew928
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stevew928,
User Rank: Strategist
7/18/2014 | 3:48:36 PM
Re: staying ahead
The biggest damage Microsoft did, IMO, was their mucking with the Interent. We're *STILL* suffering from that with 'apps' built on some of their browser versions and Net technologies, keeping users, especially in the enterprise, from moving on. They were designed to kill the open and cage people in, and they used their monopoly powers to pull it off.

Then there were the more shrewd and shady things like brower integration to the OS, or making competing browsers and video technolgies not work properly, or difficult to install. Or changing the file formats for Office to thwart compatibility efforts. Some of these things might be considered OK moves unless you're a monopoly.

And I hear you on the phones, I still can't believe the average person spends that much on a phone plan. However, as someone who went through the Palm days and such, I totally get why Apple's iPhone took off. It was the smart-phone everyone was dreaming about in the days of semi-smart phones. I know people laughed at the 'magic' language with that and the iPad, but even though we're now getting used to it, I'm still kind of blown away by the accomplishment (and I have a tech and electronics background).

Also, don't forget how many times Microsoft tried to enter the tablet market. If you look on my website, you'll still find the articles I wrote about why they would fail, in response to all the articles of amazement and praise from the tech sites (probably including this one). I was always a bit disgusted to the extent that Microsoft was the media-darling through those years... kind of shows the whole money-talks thing, huh?
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