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Is Microsoft the New Old IBM: a Ponderous Innot-vator?

Microsoft, the New Jabba

  • February 25, 2010
  • By Emery Fletcher
There was an interesting pair of articles published on Computerworld Tuesday (February 23), significant in part for their content but much more for the comparison between them. The first article, by Patrick Thibodeau, announced a collaboration between IBM and Johnson Controls to expand the use of advanced sensor technologies to monitor conditions in a greater range of buildings than the data centers the two now service. What they propose for the future is to research and develop still more advanced products, such as nano-scale sensors which could be embedded in everything from bridge structures to wall paints.

The second article, by James Niccolai, is a report that Amazon.com has agreed to pay Microsoft to enter a patent cross-licensing deal between the companies. Under the agreement, Amazon will have access to some of Microsoft's patent portfolio. Specifically, the article claims that "the agreement will shield Amazon from patent litigation against its Kindle e-reader, which includes some open-source software components, and against its use of Linux-based servers, Microsoft said."

I'm going to let someone else wonder openly and rage appropriately at the fact Microsoft considers "some open-source software components" to be part of its patent portfolio, and imagines, in its hugely misguided corporate arrogance, that Amazon's "use of Linux-based servers" needs for some obscure reason to be "shielded against".

I could rant about that endlessly, but in this case I have a different message to bring, and it has to do with history. Maybe even Karma.

Twenty years ago IBM was a bloated, ponderous corporate giant, dominating the computing world not by advancing technology but by intimidating not only its few competitors, but even its customers. Did a long-term user of IBM's support services buy so much as a single product from Amdahl? Too bad -- the service contract was de facto terminated. It seemed there was no way to break the stranglehold IBM had on the very concept of computing. (If you want the full story on all of this, I recommend "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?" by Louis Gerstner, the CEO who turned IBM around)

Back in those days the fledgling Microsoft was making its mark with a reasonably effective operating system for the PC, taking the centralized mainframe entirely out of the computing experience and handing authority to individuals. There was choice in the experience too, because Apple had a similar idea with a different face to it. Back in those days these two new corporations were innovating and advancing but remaining well under the IBM radar. IBM's threat sensors were tuned to detect only massive, mainframe competitors.

IBM under Louis Gerstner went through some real shock therapy, expunging a corporate climate that had become toxic and divesting itself of a great many of the components that had once been considered heart and soul of the company. It did not recover in a few days, or weeks, or even years, but today it is smaller, more efficient, still a huge player in the mainframe world, and now looking forward, innovating, solidly positioned to become a significant force in advancing the human condition through technology.

As to Microsoft, that article shows how perfectly they are imitating the flawed history of IBM by attempting to intimidate anyone they regard as a rival. As for intimidating their customers, the perfect example is the current WAT (aka Windows Activation Technology). That "update", KB971033, should you be misguided enough to accept it, will examine your copy of Windows to determine whether it is a pirated version, even though you probably went through the authentication process already so you can actually use it on the web. But WAT isn't happy just re-checking that original authentication -- it will KEEP re-checking it every 90 days. What do they think -- its authenticity is going to evaporate? Wear out? Decertify itself suicidally?

Not at all. The only explanation for frequent, repeated checking of existing systems that have been authenticated already is that Microsoft apparently thinks someone in the past may have come up with way of pirating their software so cleverly that Microsoft has missed it all this time, and they want a lot more time to work on the problem until they figure it out. And if they do, what will happen? You will find that through no fault of your own, the copy of Windows that you legitimately bought and paid for has suddenly been deemed unauthentic, not a valid copy, a rogue, pirated verion.

I guess that is what Microsoft is doing in the way of research these days, trying to nail down all of its patents and discover people who have already pirated their software. And what do they cite as other recent progress they have achieved? They are boasting about the fact that their current product, Windows 7, isn't nearly as bad as their previous one, Vista.

It seems a near-mythic lesson that Microsoft, once small when IBM was huge, so perfectly imitated its former rival that it is now suffering from the very same ills of corporate bloat and inventive stagnation its predecessor did. What is worse, it is reacting in the same ineffective way as history appears to be coming full circle. I wonder if Microsoft will have the courage that that IBM did, the courage to reinvent itself?

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