Business & Finance
11:42 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin

The Observer: Better Is Better, For Companies And Trade Shows

It's not always true that bigger is better, says Lou Bertin. Sometimes, bigger means too large to respond quickly to market shifts.

The word of the week, boys and girls, is hubris. That was the first and only reaction I had upon seeing two separate, totally unrelated items that appeared adjacent to one another a few days ago in the business section of USA Today that magically appears outside our hotel room doors each morning. The first carried the headline "Microsoft Saw Oracle-PeopleSoft As Threat." The second appeared beneath this headline "Producers Pull Plug On Big Tech Show."

The current doings at Microsoft and the undoing of Comdex surely aren't linked in any possible way, shape, or form, other than to illustrate what can happen when the "bigger is better" operating philosophy seemingly morphs into a "we're bigger so we must be better" mindset. Neither philosophy is attractive or sustainable over the long haul, but the latter is particularly seductive and, ultimately, destructive.

What struck me about the Microsoft piece was the unmistakable air of nonchalance conveyed when chairman Bill Gates was described as dashing off a memo to CEO Steve Ballmer regarding the proposed Oracle-PeopleSoft deal. "Another thought that came to mind is that it's time we bought SAP," Gates said in his widely reported E-mail to Ballmer.

In much the same way one of us might on a whim decide to buy a new briefcase because we're tired of dealing with the stuck zipper on the old one, Gates would appear to be desirous of simply making a purchase to take care of a nettlesome problem rather than undertaking a repair.

To be sure, SAP represents more than a valise, but one wouldn't think it from the text and tone of the Gates E-mail. Just like that, Gates suggests, Microsoft can snap its fingers and outmaneuver the audaciousness of the proposed Oracle-PeopleSoft combination and the very real threat the combined companies would represent to Microsoft.

In fairness to Microsoft, the contemplated SAP acquisition was the only defensive strategy available against the possibility of an Oracle-PeopleSoft merger. But what was so striking and so illustrative, I think, was the air of droit du seigneur underlying the Gates correspondence. "I am king; it's my right to take what I wish," the memo conveys.

Yes, it's nice to be the king. Gates is king, and he and his company--regardless of what one thinks of the means used to achieve and preserve that kingship--have the responsibility to think big thoughts. But the offhanded nature of his suggestion to Ballmer and the air of inevitability Gates seems to attach to the fulfillment of his suggestion speak far, far more than the 13 words excerpted from his E-mail.

More encouraging by far are the indications that Microsoft is focusing its considerable energies on its applications push, as reported so ably by friend and colleague John Foley in "Strategy Shift," and subsequently assessed so astutely by friend and colleague Bob Evans in "Beyond Microsoft's Business-Apps Play".

There's little to add to their insights, save for the following. It's not the first time Microsoft has made such noises and it surely won't be the last. Microsoft achieved the goals it set for its .Net initiatives largely by dint of its internal efforts and not via acquisition. However, it's going to be interesting to see if that recent form holds should Microsoft, whose initial bombshell success was based on an acquisition and has followed the acquisitive path to sustained growth, follows it's new internal path or reverts to innovation-by-acquisition to achieve its new goals. The Gates E-mail--admittedly just over a year old now--indicates that if the strategic need is there but the apps aren't, the cash will be there to ensure buying up whatever's needed.

Lastly, a word or two about Comdex. In many ways, my career and the careers of lots of fellow scribblers of a certain age are inextricably tied to the conference. I wasn't at the first Comdex held in Las Vegas (which ended in the tragedy of the MGM Grand hotel fire), but I did manage to spend a couple decade's worth of birthdays either in the company of casino owner Sheldon Adelson and a few hundred thousand of his nearest and dearest in the desert, or in a mad run-up to the conference.

Comdex came to be the chronological punctuator for the industry and it rightly was considered irreplaceable until it wasn't irreplaceable anymore. This is in no way intended to impugn any of the folks who are at the helm and who made the decision to "suspend" the show until next year. Many of them are longtime friends and are doing what's right.

But this is to suggest that the bigger one gets, the less sensitive one becomes to subtle shifts and the longer it takes to respond to them.

Yes, "bigger is better" is comforting thinking. It's doesn't, however, acknowledge the reality that in the end only better is better.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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