Silicon Insider: R.I.P. Microsoft?

I found myself with a serious case of cognitive dissonance. On paper, Silicon Graphics looked great, but in my gut it was a company in desperate straits. I went with my gut, and to Fortune's credit, the magazine backed me. CGI raised holy hell over the article when it appeared -- but subsequent events proved me right.

The same thing happened at Hewlett-Packard. In some very controversial editorials in The Wall Street Journal, I predicted that Carly Fiorina's stewardship of HP would be an unmitigated disaster, and would destroy the world's greatest company. Obviously, Fortune, Forbes and most of the rest of the business press didn't agree -- and all I managed to do was make myself persona non-gratis at HP. But, as this week's news shows, my instincts were correct. [As an aside: If the first words out of the mouth of Carly's replacement aren't "The HP Way is back", the board should fire him, too.]

Is Microsoft Rotting?

That brings us to Microsoft. The other day I had lunch with the CEO of a mid-sized semiconductor equipment manufacturer. SEMs are the forgotten folks of the digital revolution. As the people who make the machines that make the chips that make the electronic products that run the world, they are at the absolute top of the electronics food chain. They typically know about what's coming in the electronics world earlier than anybody else. But their products are so arcane -- who cares about automated wafer steppers? -- the press almost never talks to them.

In the course of the conversation we talked about the coming Intel-Samsung war, the beginnings of a slowdown in the SEM business (presaging a chip turndown next year), and the sad fate of HP. It was in the middle of all this that a notion suddenly appeared in my mind: Microsoft is dying.

Why the sudden thought? Perhaps it was talking about HP; maybe it was the fact we WEREN'T talking about Microsoft (which would have monopolized our conversation a few years ago), or perhaps it was just my instincts were finally putting diverse bits of information together into a single conclusion.

Great, healthy companies not only dominate the market, but share of mind. Look at Apple these days. But when was the last time you thought about Microsoft, except in frustration or anger? The company just announced a powerful new search engine, designed to take on Google -- but did anybody notice? Meanwhile, open systems world -- created largely in response to Microsoft's heavy-handed hegemony -- is slowly carving away market share from Gates & Co.: Linux and Firefox hold the world's imagination these days, not Windows and Explorer. The only thing Microsoft seems busy at these days is patching and plugging holes.

Speaking of Gates: if you remember, he was supposed to be going back into the lab to recreate the old MS alchemy. But lately it seems -- statesmanship being the final refuge of the successful entrepreneur -- that he's been devoting more time to philanthropy than capitalism. And though Steve Ballmer is legendary for his sound and fury, these days his leadership seems to be signifying nothing.

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