Imagine a Microsoft-Free Life

The irony was that examples of the sheer power -- and burden -- of having your product become the industry standard were all around us. And none was greater than that offered by IBM. The IBM 360 mainframe computer had made Big Blue the richest manufacturing company on the planet, more dominant in tech then than any company today. And the penumbra of brand loyalty, compatibility, comfort and sense of inevitability that surrounded the 360 made it easy for IBM to move into, and instantly dominate, any other business it chose to enter, such as minicomputers.

It was, after all, IBM's decision -- the result of a series of unlikely and sometimes curious events -- to adopt the Intel 8088 and Microsoft DOS as, respectively, the central processor and the operating system of the IBM PC that made those two technologies the de facto standards of the emerging personal computing world and ultimately made Intel and Microsoft the most valuable companies of their time.

Why didn't we recognize this in 1982?

One obvious reason is that another unlikely historic conjunction was taking place and we were so busy watching the downside of becoming a standard that it distracted us. Once again, it was IBM: after more than a decade of owning the computing world with the 360, the company managed to transition its users to the follow-up 370 series. But it had been painful, Big Blue finding itself for the first time faced with the issue of legacy -- the vast body of users who had put long hours and huge sums into 360 applications and weren't interested in upgrading to the new generation.

Now, IBM was preparing to do it again with its "H" series -- and it was running smack into a wall of resistance from its own customers. Silicon Valley, watching this mess unfold, forgot all about the 30 years that Big Blue had owned computing and the billions of dollars it had made -- and instead learned all of the wrong lessons about becoming a standard. It would be another quarter century until most of (non-Intel) Silicon Valley -- thanks to Steve Jobs -- finally got the lesson right.

But Bill Gates didn't make that mistake -- and by quickly driving DOS/Windows and Word/Office into global standards, Microsoft has made hundreds of billions of dollars and continues to hold off most of the competition even to this day.

But like the old IBM, Microsoft is finally beginning to see the back end of standardization. It is now the Bismark or Yamoto of high tech: huge, menacing and still very dangerous, but lumbering, increasingly trapped and now under assault from every direction by faster and more nimble enemies. Apple is attacking from one direction, Google from another, the Linux crowd from still another, and now, irony or ironies, IBM itself -- dead and reborn as a very different company -- is bringing its guns to bear.

None of these assaults are likely to sink Microsoft. Not this time, at least.

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