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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

But will you respect me in the morning?: Microsoft and Apple on the morning after

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

There are some people, including me, who are tired of my writing so many columns about Apple Computer. If the news would stop coming, if Apple would stop screwing-up and then attempting recovery, then we could get back to the important business of overclocking motherboards and arguing over the benefits of interleaved memory. But Apple just won't leave us alone. The company insists on living -- and maybe dying -- in an excruciatingly public fashion. It reminds me of the time I wandered onto a nude beach on Nantucket only to quickly wish I hadn't.

But a lot has been happening at Apple and I can't ignore it. I have spent a lot of time down in Cupertino talking with those who bleed five colors, and have come to what I think are some informed conclusions. But how best to present them? Fortunately this week, I received a wonderful e-mail message from a guy who hit nearly all of the major points straight-on. I don't agree with him, but at least he's discussing the right areas. So I will take the lazy way out, and use this wonderful e-mail as the structure for this week's column. Thanks a lot to EwQuisp. My responses are in boldface.

From: Date: Mon, 11 Aug 1997 23:35:02 -0400 (EDT) To: Subject: computerdom's darkest day to date

For $150 Million bucks Bill Gates just bought:

1) Protection from anti-trust lawsuits. Evilsoft 1, Government 0.

This is probably correct. If investing a little money in Apple helps the U.S. Department of Justice think that Microsoft has competition in the operating system business, then it is good insurance against heavy legal fees. But, as you can see below, Microsoft has many more reasons for investing in Apple than just to keep the Feds happy.

2) Apple gives up its lawsuits against Windows. Evilsoft 1, Apple 0.

A minor point. Apple had already lost to Microsoft and the courts weren't likely to change direction at this point. Of course, had there been a smoking gun . . . Well, we'll never know, will we?

3) Bill gets to see his arch-rival grovel in front of thousands (worth the millions alone). Evilsoft 1, Jobs 0.

I have known Steve Jobs for just over 20 years and have yet to see him grovel. There was no grovelling last week at MacWorld. And I'll guarantee that Bill Gates does not see Steve Jobs as his arch-rival. Bill finds Steve interesting, rather in the way an anthropologist finds interesting some new tribe discovered in the Phillippine jungle. But that hardly makes Steve a rival.

4) Was I the only one to get Orwellian chills as Bill's face was planted on the giant TV screen in an un-nervingly bizarre parody (or is it ironic tribute) to the famous Apple 1984 commercial. Conformity 1, Chiat/Day 0.

Possible, but I was more impressed with the fact that Bill had washed his hair.

5) Evilsoft Explorer becomes the number one browser for consumer machines, which means:

a) Navigator is doomed. Evilsoft 1, Netscape 0.

b) ActiveX (Evilsoft's answer to Java) will be on every consumer machine which means ActiveX will win over Java. Evilsoft 1, Sun 0.

c) Owning the bulk of the browsers means Evilsoft will get to define HTML. Evilsoft 1, WWW Consortium 0.

d) If Bill's dream of an Explorer-based desktop are actually realized, then Evilsoft ends up being the primary user interface for virtually all consumer desktop machines. Evilsoft 1, Finder 0.

To summarize: Evilsoft 8, Others 0.

Wow! Here's the guts of the message and he puts it into a four part question!

A) Microsoft Internet Explorer does not become the number one browser for consumer machines because Apple decides to ship it in the Apple Internet Connection Kit. Internet Explorer isn't clearly the number one browser for Windows computers, so why should Apple's endorsement make it the overall champion? It won't, but this is clearly a kick in the head to Netscape. However, Navigator is not doomed.

B) This is the bonus point that most people missed. Microsoft would very much like Apple to endorse ActiveX in favor of Java, or at least endorse ActiveX as an equal to Java. But this is not what happened last week, nor do I expect it to happen. Apple is like those ultra-orthodox political parties that seem to control the balance of power in the Israeli parliament: They don't have enough power to create their own standard, but they have enough power to help select the eventual winning standard. Apple probably has enough power to doom Java in favor of ActiveX. But it won't happen, because that would be giving Microsoft too much for their puny $150 million, and ActiveX, in many ways, is a trainwreck and Apple knows it.

C) Microsoft doesn't control the browsers and they CERTAINLY don't control the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Though Microsoft has made a heck of an effort to influence the W3C, so have a lot of other companies. Just look at the number of W3C staff people who come from member companies like Microsoft and HP. These folks are ambassadors and spies as much as they are staffers, BUT THE W3C KNOWS THIS. The place is like Babylon 5 without the commercials, but Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web and runs the W3C, is the least corruptible person in computing, so I'm not particularly worried. There's no way Bill Gates understands Tim Berners-Lee. Microsoft will have input to the next version of HTML, but they certainly won't define it.

D) This bit of logic works if all the preceding bits of logic are correct, which they aren't. ActiveX is unlikely to prevail on a global basis, Microsoft won't be the dominant browser maker and won't define HTML or (more importantly) HTTP. Won't happen. Bill would like it, but not even he expects such luck.

For a paltry $150 Million Gates gets the keys to the Internet, and his number one adversary becomes a mere vassal in a vast empire of mediocrity. Money and market share (instead of good software) prove why Evilsoft succeeds where others fail.

For a paltry $150 million (1.5 percent of Microsoft's cash stash), Microsoft gets to preserve a lucrative Macintosh application business. Microsoft's dominance of the word processing and spreadsheet markets for the Mac yielded an average PROFIT of $75 per Macintosh straight to Redmond. This is more profit per Mac than Apple makes and is why Microsoft wants Apple to succeed. That $150 million investment assures another year -- and another $225 million in profits -- to Microsoft. This is not rocket science, just good business on Microsoft's part. And it's good on Apple's part, too. Apple gets some good publicity, some extra cash (not much, but enough to cover the last bad quarter) and Microsoft doesn't even get voting shares, much less a seat on the board. Win-win.

Jobs was wrong, Evilsoft does need to lose for us to win. For $150 million, the Net has been sold into a decade of stagnation. Even if others don't realize it now, we've all lost.

Fortunately, this is wrong, as is the assumption that Jobs is Gates' rival. Bill Gates has only three rivals: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates Sr., and old age. Nobody else matters. And last week's events don't amount to a pimple on the butt of either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

But I do think Microsoft could stand to be a loser, don't you?

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