What a difference a year makes

There they go again. Prominent software industry CEOs once again have gone to Capitol Hill in Washington to warn about the dangers of Microsoft's unchecked market power. Anybody who regularly reads this column knows that I sympathise with much of what they had to say. But I thought it strange when Messrs. Glaser, Papows and Ellison recently denounced the damage Microsoft is inflicting on RealNetworks, Lotus Development and Apple Computer.

I couldn't put my finger on it until I spent some time trawling through a bunch of Web site archives. Then I rediscovered what those very same companies were saying just 12 months ago.

On July 21, 1997, Microsoft and what was then Progressive Networks "announced an agreement that will help to define industry standards for the streaming media market. ... As part of the agreement, Microsoft has also made a minority investment in Progressive Networks."

Rob Glaser, that small company's CEO, added, "We have worked successfully with Microsoft in the past, and this agreement brings our relationship to a new level."

Then, on July 29, 1997, Lotus and Microsoft "announced that they have reached agreement on new initiatives aimed at meeting customers' need for great interoperability. ... The initiatives include plans for Lotus to ship Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 with strategic Lotus products." Lotus President Jeff Papows commented, "We are excited about the current work that we are doing with Microsoft ... and we look forward to future cooperation."

Finally, on August 6, 1997, Apple introduced its new board of directors, which included Oracle's Larry Ellison. That same day, Apple and Microsoft announced a broad agreement that included patent cross-licensing, making Internet Explorer the default Apple browser and a Microsoft acquisition of $US150 million in Apple stock.

Apple's acting CEO, Steve Jobs, said, "We are thrilled at the prospect of working more closely with Microsoft. ... We are confident that this is the beginning of a much closer relationship between the two companies."

Now, I don't want to be too hard on these gentlemen. Between fear, the lure of power and gold, and the sincere desire to serve customers and establish peace in the IT community, there are many reasons to try to work with Microsoft. Besides, sometimes the folks in Redmond make you an offer that you simply can't refuse.

Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that those deals have proved to be more than a bit naive. By 1997, its all-out assault on Netscape had made it obvious that Microsoft was indeed an unrestrained predator. Why did these executives think they would be anything but next year's lunch?

Technology vendors love to talk about how they thrive in a world of "coopetition". Certainly, there have been many important examples of rivals working together to set standards and accelerate market growth. But how many of those involved Microsoft?

Software Publishers Association President Ken Wasch put it objectively: "For firms that have chosen not to compete with any Microsoft product, the relationship is often very positive. However, for firms seeking to develop products that may compete with Microsoft's own offerings, the relationship can be extremely problematic."

In a recent US Computerworld interview, former Apple CEO Gil Amelio put it colourfully: "Bill is ... incapable of even letting you have one of the marbles."

The only question now is whether anyone has learned anything. Cooperation and coopetition haven't worked; how about some plain old-fashioned competition? What a novel idea.

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David Moschella

PC World
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