What's in Redmond's water that dulls the best, brightest?

The rats and Microsoft go way back. In the lab, we've tested hundreds of the company's products. At briefings, trade shows and bars, we've met dozens of the company's employees. And from conference call to last call, Microsoft folks have always impressed us with their smarts, savvy and work ethic.

It's an enormous paradox. In addition to its huge capitalisation and monopoly position, Microsoft has a collection of the best and brightest in the industry. Where then is knock-our-socks-off evidence of their imagination, technical innovation and workmanship? Why do palm-size WinCE devices so ineptly miss the reasons behind the PalmPilot's success?

Years after the announcement of Windows NT 5.0, we're still poking at beta versions. A final version of Microsoft's "bet the company" initiative continues to balloon and slip like a Hollywood boondoggle that ruins a studio.

The best explanation for Microsoft's mediocrity starts at the top. With a combination of luck and focus, Bill Gates built an empire. But that's all he's built.

His syndicated columns give the impression that he believes technology will -- as it has already done for him -- build Xanadu for the rest of us. Yet these passionless odes to techno-utopia read as if crafted by committee or churned out by a Microsoft Word wizard. His approach to art -- the one "hobby" of his that we know about -- is that of a collector, not an admirer. In this light, the brilliant people who work for him have been collected just like his da Vincis and Wyeths.

Of course, the cherry on top of this persona was Gates' gloupinesque, a perfect time for him to show a little of his lighter side. Instead, the thought balloon in the famous shot of his cream-covered mug reads only: "I'll have to adjust my schedule." No anger. No amusement. Just the blank look of a toll collector.

Let's face it: the most influential person in an industry that's changed the world would make a dull dinner guest. Nothing interests him except Microsoft (and MFST), and it's this banality that touches every corner of the company. James Gleick dubbed the language of this culture Microspeak (see http://www.around.com/microspeak.html). Whatever it's called, something's definitely in the water.

We agree with Gates on one thing: Microsoft is vulnerable. The threats are many -- from set-top boxes to handheld devices -- and as unlikely as it sounds, Microsoft could become irrelevant in less than a decade unless it continually reinvents itself.

So consider another paradox: what if Gates must go for Microsoft to survive? We know -- fat chance. Still, it's a fun "what if".

Although Gates is usually lauded for turning Microsoft on a dime to deal with the implications of the Internet, what choice did he have? And why was such a powerful company so behind the curve in the first place? He may have weathered this wave, but there are many more lining up to eat at Microsoft's shores.

Like DOS clings to Windows, there may be a time when Gates holds back Microsoft. Gates built the company, but he could also carry it down. Perhaps only if Gates abdicates to someone with a bigger vision will the talent he's collected be associated with accomplishments other than bugs and bloatware.

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