Boulders on the road ahead

Trustworthy leaders don't talk only about destinations. They also explain how to overcome obstacles along the way. Microsoft still has a lot of explaining to do.

Bill Gates staked out his vision of the decades ahead in his 1995 manifesto, The Road Ahead.

Since then, we've been exposed to Gates' vision through his speeches and Microsoft's advertising campaigns, such as the recent series about delivering a Digital Nervous System that will make information systems "work together". We've also heard the promise of Zero Administration costs for PC software.

None of those marketing initiatives, based on my close following of news from Redmond, alters the view of the future as it was articulated in Gates' book.

So more than two years after The Road Ahead was published, how does Microsoft propose to remove the boulders blocking the information superhighway and impeding global computing in the Information Age?

The Holy Grail of computerdom is the achievement of interoperability. It means not having to worry how data, applications and hardware will work as technology changes. Everyone - including readers of The Road Ahead - has run into problems with incompatible text, data, images and peripherals. The CD-ROM that came with Gates' book ran on Windows 95, but not Windows NT.

Today, we're still wondering how Microsoft will deliver on the book's promise that "... Microsoft operating systems provide compatibility and interoperability ... developers do not need to worry about what PC their software will run."

Today, Microsoft isn't fully interoperable even within its own product line and certainly doesn't practice easy handshakes with software and hardware vendors who don't strictly and narrowly comply with Microsoft's formats.

How those barriers will be removed is something that concerns every systems manager. We're still waiting for a cogent plan - other than homogenising everyone into a mould set by one supplier and setting proprietary standards of interoperability for everyone else.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's ambitions and aggressive methods have caused widespread apprehensions. The paranoia of software companies, antitrust lawyers and US state regulators has spread throughout corporate America. A story in the April 27 issue of Fortune carries the headline: "Microsoft: Is your company its next meal? Now even the giants of the Fortune 500 have reasons to fear."

Simple arithmetic propels those anxieties. To maintain current growth and financial performance, Microsoft's profits must rise to about one-third of all profits earned by the 3000 largest US corporations. If that happens, Microsoft's revenue would equal three-quarters of the combined global revenues of GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota.

But size and the cash in Microsoft's war chest aren't the only sources of fears. CEOs finally have realised that Microsoft's operating system straddles every access gate to their information networks.

It's as if a single locksmith provided both the keys and the locks for every door in the world.

The Road Ahead avoids the issue altogether. I did a full-text search in the book for words such as "monopoly", "obstacles" and "dominance" and found one reference to the game of Monopoly, one to the late An Wang and electronic calculators and two references to telephone company monopolies.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to deny that it's exhibiting any monopolistic tendencies, as evidenced in recent US Senate hearings.

The only obstructions to creating the information society mentioned in the book are the bandwidth barriers put in place by telephone and cable companies. Those themes continue to be repeated in most of Gates' recent talks and are supported with an aggressive investment and acquisition agenda in cable companies and satellite ventures.

To me, talking about bandwidth barriers instead of addressing the acute issues around Microsoft's dominance in operating systems and desktop applications looks like a signal that Microsoft wants to extend its reach. Redmond doesn't just want to supply the keys and locks for the world's computers. It also wants to manage the electronic pathways leading to them. No wonder such aspirations tend to increase suspicions about an organisation with that much power.

Microsoft's visions about the road ahead must now respond to rising concerns over whether its claims to leadership will expose its followers to unanticipated risks.

Microsoft is an admirable organisation. It has delivered universal solutions that have made it possible to extend computing power beyond the limits and imagination of companies that initially possessed greater resources and superior technologies. Its success has been well-earned because it has consistently delivered good value, compared with what competitors offered.

But nothing dominates forever, as I found out after years of committing my companies to follow the computing path as preached and delivered by IBM. IBM failed to recognise that its chosen "road ahead" didn't lead where its customers wanted to go.

We should remain skeptical about Bill Gates' vision until he and his associates tell us how they propose to cope with the obstacles to their idealistic-sounding visions.

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