Microsoft's Golden Age: Going, Going ... Gone?

With Bill Gates giving up his day-to-day role at Microsoft, a big question is whether the company's best days are behind it.

Oracle Corp. and SAP AG may still be bigger in enterprise applications, and Oracle in databases. Both IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. may reap more IT dollars overall. But in the ways that really count, Microsoft Corp. remains the king of the IT industry.

Now, though, Microsoft is at a major crossroads, as co-founder Bill Gates prepares to step away from his day-to-day job at the company next Monday (see more coverage on our "Bill Gates Moves On" page). Although Gates has long been disengaging from Microsoft — he turned over the CEO position to Steve Ballmer in January 2000, and his retirement plans were announced two years ago — his departure raises questions about whether the software vendor's best days are behind it.

For example, Forrester Research Inc. CEO George Colony wrote in a June 16 blog post that Gates' "constructive monopolism" had created a set of de facto IT standards — to the benefit of users as well as Microsoft.

Gates wasn't a technology innovator, Colony wrote, but he "possessed the competitive drive to force his technologies into monopoly positions in the marketplace." That drive, Colony added, has been missing from Microsoft in recent years as Gates has focused less on the company and more on his philanthropic activities, allowing rivals like Google Inc. and Apple Inc. to steal the IT spotlight.

With Microsoft approaching corporate middle age — the company was founded 33 years ago — it faces more threats than ever to its long-held and fiercely defended IT alpha dog position. The Microsoft-controlled standardization of IT is being challenged by proponents of open document formats, while open-source software, Web 2.0 technologies and software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings are nipping away at Microsoft's lucrative Windows and Office franchises.

Chief among the threats is Google. "When Microsoft looks at Google," said Rob Horwitz, CEO and head of research at consulting firm Directions on Microsoft, "it sees a younger, beefier and more suntanned version of itself, and it says, 'Wow.'"

Google Docs, an online rival to Office, is a dagger aimed at the heart of one of Microsoft's top profit generators. And collectively, Google's lineup of cloud computing technologies is designed to smash Microsoft's desktop dominance.

Unlike Microsoft, Google "doesn't have to deal with any legacy issues," said Creative Strategies Inc. analyst Tim Bajarin. "That's why they can be a bull in a china closet and experiment."

Bolstered by its huge Web advertising business, Google can also afford to bide its time. Most of its would-be Microsoft-killers are still technically in beta and hence free to users.

Google is "trying to deny Microsoft revenue by getting corporations to stop renewing their enterprise agreements with Microsoft," said Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle. "Even if [Google doesn't] make any money, Microsoft can't make money."

For now, Microsoft appears to be perfectly healthy. The company is expected to post a profit of $16.4 billion on revenue of $58 billion for its 2008 fiscal year, which ends June 30. That would represent double-digit growth from fiscal 2007.

Also, the respective market shares of both Windows and Office remain above 90%, and the company's $10billion-plus server and tools business — which includes Windows Server, SQL Server, Visual Studio and System Center — continues to grow, as yet unopposed by any offering from Google.

Challenges Ahead

But the continued strong showing is something of a mirage, according to Enderle. Microsoft is focusing "way too much on revenue, not on customer loyalty," he said. "It's good in the short term but badly damages you in the long run."

And Horwitz noted that Microsoft hasn't managed to come up with a new hit product "in nearly a decade," despite pouring about $7 billion annually into research and development. Search technology is a prime example, and Microsoft's frustration in that arena is epitomized by its unsuccessful effort to buy Yahoo Inc. to help it compete against Google.

In addition, Microsoft's efforts to match up against Google, Inc. and other online application rivals are being hampered by the very success of Windows and Office products. Instead of following a pure SaaS approach, Microsoft has adopted a strategy it calls "Software+Services" that's designed to incorporate and protect its existing products.

The company's contortions to preserve its star players show how a large installed base can be a "ball and chain," Horwitz said. He predicted that within five to 10 years, Microsoft will be forced to fundamentally overhaul both Windows and Office — potentially giving customers an opening to switch to rival offerings.

There are internal issues as well — such as the bureaucracy and complacency that sheer size can breed. Enderle, a former IBM employee, drew parallels between the two companies. "Microsoft's current problems," he said, "are like IBM's in the early 1990s: It's getting in its own way."

But that doesn't mean Microsoft is doomed to a downward spiral. In the past, it has shown an ability to face down threats, including WordPerfect, Lotus, IBM, Novell, Netscape — and even the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I'm not expecting Microsoft to fail by 2015," Enderle said. Even the slow adoption of Windows Vista could have a silver lining. "You've got a development team that's been slapped upside the head," he said. "They're motivated to do something dramatically better."

And IT executives such as Jim Prevo, CIO at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. in Waterbury, Vt., remain wary about casting their lot with Google and SaaS.

"I like Google, but I don't see it in the same class at all as Microsoft's apps," Prevo said. As for SaaS offerings, "I'd be tying my wagon to a bunch of different horses for various business processes," he said. "If any one of those providers was to go belly-up, I'd have an urgent problem."

Moreover, Horwitz noted that Google itself is already contending with the same kind of monopoly concerns and industry jealousy that Microsoft has faced.

But like other vendors before it — such as HP and IBM, as well as NCR and Xerox — Microsoft may have to make some big internal changes in order to continue thriving in the years to come.

Enderle points to HP and EMC Corp. as vendors that Microsoft could emulate. EMC has a product quality and customer loyalty unit that reports directly to CEO Joe Tucci, while HP is doing well financially because its CEO, Mark Hurd, is "focusing very sharply on operations," Enderle said. In contrast, he said he views Ballmer as a "super sales guy" who has been loath to show underperforming executives the door.

See more coverage: Bill Gates Moves On.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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