Comeback Time for Microsoft
April 23, 2001
Let's scan some news items for clues. A New York Times article detailed industry veterans' fears that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) is co-opting the SOAP standard for its own purposes. Microsoft's new Hailstorm Internet data repository is generating complaints from people who fear it will consolidate too much power with the company. America Online is already complaining to state attorneys general that the .NET initiative is an unfair monopoly extension.
So people are complaining about Microsoft being a bully, worrying about Microsoft's size and power, and accusing it of antitrust violations.
There can be only one conclusion: Microsoft is back.
That's right, the Beast from Redmond, so recently consigned to the scrap heap of history, is back.
Microsoft had a few bad years. The antitrust trial was a disaster. But it now appears fairly certain that the company won't be broken up. That means the company will be free to implement .NET, its next-generation platform.
Last fall everyone was sneering at .NET as vaporware, but as I warned in a column back then, those who ignored .NET did so at their own peril. Guess what? Nobody is ignoring .NET now.
Once again, Microsoft is riding the crest of a paradigm shift, using its own applications as a proving ground, and forcing other companies to either adapt to its new platform -- or be left behind.
The company's belligerent attitude during the trial, which led to some tough days in court, is now apparently paying off, as the company remains free to do as it sees fit. Employees and fans of the software behemoth can be proud that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer never bowed to the pressure to sell out for short-term benefit.
What is Microsoft's most important asset? Its people.
A fair number left the software giant, tempted by the promise of dot-com riches. Now that fantasy has played itself out, the company can once again start hiring the refugees from the dot-com flops. During the company's more difficult years, several high-ranking employees left, but trust me when I say that only some of them will be missed.
Since Microsoft started its mass hiring in the late 1980s, it is understandable that suddenly a large number of employees are hitting their 11- to 14-year anniversaries, counting their money, and deciding to take some time off.
Microsoft even managed to weather the nearly two-thirds drop in its stock price in 2000. I had always predicted that a big drop-off like that would cause mass defections, with people deciding that their options were no longer worth anything.
But Microsoft employees typically don't leave on the spur of the moment; they wait until their current project or milestone is done. The stock dropped so fast between March and May 2000 that few people had time to head for the exits, and by then the price was so low that most people stuck around, waiting for a rebound.
Meanwhile, the low stock price is a great lure for new hires, whose options will be priced at levels not seen since 1998. The company plans to hire 5,000 to 6,000 people in the coming fiscal year, and is now in the process of tearing down older buildings so it can put up newer ones with more room.
What about competition? Netscape is gone, while Sun and Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) are going to get hosed as dot-coms realize they actually have to justify their capital expenditures.
No more automatic purchases of overpowered Sun/Oracle Web servers is one reason why Sun's and Oracle's stock are both down about 50 percent for the year, while Microsoft's is up 50. All those dot-coms that bragged that they didn't even mention Microsoft in their business plans are now preparing to auction off their assets under the supervision of a bankruptcy court.
Microsoft surely isn't perfect. It's spending money on projects I disagree with, continuing not to take Linux seriously, and working its employees too hard, same as always.
But still, signs are that Microsoft is making a comeback.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over 10 years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters" was recently published. He lives in Redmond, Washington.