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  • The Fear-Factor Revisited: Time for a Microsoft Death Watch?

    March 30th, 2007

    I suppose a company’s life-cycle might resemble that of a living creature. Some die rapidly, often without achieving success. Others attain the pinnacle of success, grab the brass ring and discover the end of the rainbow. A precious few, such as Microsoft, come to dominate their industry. You can almost think of them as invulnerable, yet it seems that only oil companies maintain that status for terribly long.

    Consider the 1980s, when IBM was king of the PC universe. Today the market leaders are Dell and HP, whereas IBM’s PC business was sold off to Lenovo, a company based in China. If you went back in time roughly two decades and told anyone how the PC business would look today — and don’t forget about Apple using Intel chips for the Mac — you’d get laughed at or put away in a little room with extremely soft walls.

    It wasn’t so long ago that any suggestion that Microsoft was losing its mojo would garner loud laughter, and that’s quite understandable. And certainly with sales of 20 million copies of Vista, the mere suggestion that Microsoft might be in its death throes may strike you as absurd. Besides, the company is hugely profitable, stockholders are happy and 95% of the world’s personal computers still run some version of Windows.

    But it’s the little things that count, and I’ve been covering a few of those things in recent months. Moreover, I’m not alone in this suggestion. More and more people are talking tough about Microsoft, and you do hear suggestions that its executives might just be a little out of touch with reality.

    Take the statement from Bill Gates that Macs are suffering from as much malware as Windows. What planet is he living on, and where did he get that silly idea? Before you go look for the first Mac OS X virus to spread into the wild, let me tell you that it’s not worth the bother. You see, Microsoft’s spin-meisters would probably claim that Gates was just pointing to the various Apple updates that fix security leaks, and not speaking about genuine exploits. Maybe his comments were, well, misinterpreted.

    Then you have the incessant rants of Steve Ballmer that everything the company does is spectacularly innovative and will change the computing world forever — for the better of course.

    But it’s not the irrational remarks of its executives that should be cause for concern. They have the right to feel optimistic about their products and they are expected to evangelize Microsoft’s vision.

    However, you begin to wonder whether or not there are a few signs of a long-term erosion in Microsoft’s dominance. Indeed, Mac market share, after years of stagnation, seems to be on the rise, particularly when it comes to note-books, which is the real growth category in the PC business. But that’s certainly not all.

    Why are more Macs being sold? Well, one key reason is that more and more Windows users are disgusted with that platform’s instabilities and vulnerability to malware. Virus protection software often has to be updated on a daily basis to keep current. By the time you add software to protect your PC from spyware and various and sundry ills of the Internet, it takes its toll. Your PC may even run noticeably slower under the load of all that security software.

    More and more tech writers who formerly touted Windows as the ultimate PC solution talk of their great experiences switching over to Macs. Some just do it as an experiment for a story, perhaps, or just to see why Mac users are so passionate about their computers. But more and more of these experiments are life-changing experiences. They embrace the Mac, and urge others to do so as well.

    No, it’s not just a set of goofy ads that made this happen. But I suppose that the fact that millions of Windows users have adopted the iPod as their music players of choice might be a factor.

    And just look at all the awesome gadgets that Apple has introduced of late, such as the Apple TV, and let’s not forget the iPhone. Even the Chairman of the FCC reportedly spent time admiring one. Imagine that!

    In contrast, Microsoft begat the Zune music player, such as it was, and Windows Vista, which seems almost an afterthought after six years of hype.

    Office 2007? Well, you don’t hear so much about that anymore.

    Now there ought to be a little reality check: I happen to like Microsoft’s Mac products, including Word, Entourage, their wireless keyboard and mouse outfit and, more importantly, the people I know who work there. So let’s not take this long critique personally.

    At the same time, of course, there is the worldwide attention that’s focused on every little thing Apple does. iTunes has a “Complete My Album” feature, which allows you to upgrade from singles to the full album within six months for the difference in price. The new feature made worldwide headlines, although you wonder if they are simply paying heed to music industry concerns that albums aren’t so popular anymore.

    On the other hand, there’s that nagging feeling that, even if it takes a decade or two, Microsoft is on the long road downward, but to where, nobody really knows. Except for those time travelers of course.

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