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All Microsoft, All the Time? No, Thanks

By Rob Pegoraro

Friday, November 12, 1999; Page E01

Friday's "finding of fact" ruling by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in the Microsoft antitrust trial certainly made for some fascinating reading. The judge essentially took a two-by-four to the company's practices, saying that it enjoys a monopoly (go figure) and that it uses that position to advance its own interests and suppress competitors (anybody bought a home computer with Netscape preinstalled lately?).

What this 207-page document doesn't address is Microsoft's extraordinarily broad range of ventures outside the software business. It's one thing that the company so thoroughly dominates the market for operating systems and other programs. It's another to consider how many other markets Microsoft competes in--especially given this company's history of not resting until it's the dominant player in any given industry sector.

Put another way, it's hard to find a market this company doesn't consider itself competent in. A look at the company's ventures into the world of Web content illustrates this. Today, Microsoft's MSN site {lt}http://www.msn.com{gt} offers access to:

* A travel agency (MSN Expedia).

* A free e-mail service (MSN Hotmail).

* An instant-messaging service (MSN Messenger).

* A real estate brokerage (MSN HomeAdvisor).

* A car dealership (Microsoft CarPoint).

* A shopping mall (eShop).

* An audio/video Web-casting service (WindowsMedia.com).

* A Web-page hosting service (MSN Home Pages).

* A journal of opinion (Slate).

* An Internet search engine (MSN Search).

With various other partners, Microsoft provides such services as online auctions, a phone book, a news service and much more. Bored with the MSN.com address? Click over to MSNBC.com, MSFDC.com (a joint venture with First Data Corp.) and MSBET.com (a partnership with Black Entertainment Television). What cute names! And what cloying ones!

Once you've checked your e-mail account, finished buying plane tickets, leased a car (perhaps with a Microsoft-developed AutoPC in the dashboard), obtained a mortgage and bought a house with help from Microsoft, you can move on to your offline computing activities. There, the company is happy to sell you an operating system, a Web browser, an e-mail program, a word processor, an image editor, a database, a spreadsheet, a personal-finance manager, a scheduler, an encyclopedia and too many games to count. And you can click, type and steer your way through all these programs, Web sites and games with Microsoft keyboards, mice and joysticks. When you're done, you can take this information on the road with a Windows CE-equipped personal digital assistant, or maybe access it at home with Microsoft's WebTV set-top box. And don't forget to call Mom with your new Microsoft PC Phone System MP-900 to tell her about your exploits.

It's easy to spend your entire day using Microsoft software and content, with every dime you spend going through a Microsoft server somewhere. Where does it all stop? Some time ago, I realized that the most terrifying e-mail address possible would be "president@microsoft.gov," which may yet come to pass if Microsoft elects to jump into the government market.

Don't get me wrong; taken individually, many of these sites are well worth a bookmark. Slate runs thoughtful, insightful commentary; Expedia offers a useful bundle of travel-discount finders; Sidewalk published some first-rate restaurant and nightlife reviews and gave quite a few friends jobs.

But the totality of Microsoft's presence just scares me. I don't want any one company or organization enmeshed in that many parts of my life. Not Microsoft, not Apple, not America Online, not the U.S. government, not anybody.

What's the deal behind this Microsoft-for-everyone push, anyway? Who wants this?

"Our approach . . . is to do an excellent job in the areas we think are core to what consumers do every day--communications, searching, shopping and personal finance," explained Yusuf Mehdi, director of Microsoft's consumer commerce group. Sometimes this means Microsoft will open up its own site; more often, the company will work with others, in its own particular fashion: "We take a real partnership approach, invest money or take a stake in the company, and then ask that the company implement some of the technologies that make the consumer experience better." (Microsoft-developed technologies, he clarified.)

But whichever approach the company takes, the company views its own moniker as its biggest selling point. "The Microsoft brand today, according to our research with consumers, it stands for quality software, it stands for trustworthiness, it stands for . . . helping people," Mehdi said.

Can the company count on that reputation in the wake of Judge Jackson's ruling? Good question. These days, Microsoft is the sport-utility vehicle of the computing industry: It's got an overwhelming market share, it's too big to ignore, and it's highly unfashionable to admit to liking it.

It certainly seems safe to say that we won't be seeing any of the first MSNBC commercials, which touted "the future of news from the names you know . . . NBC and Microsoft." Lately, the company seems to have elected to step into the background of many of its high-profile partnerships. The MSNBC Web site doesn't even mention Microsoft on its "About MSNBC" page, MSFDC now goes by the name "TransPoint," and MSBET will soon abandon that dorky abbreviation for plain old BET.com. And sometimes the company even gives up: It sold off Sidewalk to its competitor (and The Post's online partner) CitySearch, and earlier ventures into Web soap operas were unceremoniously dragged to the Recycle Bin after brief trial runs.

But make no mistake, the MSN site itself has only bigger and better things in store. Mehdi spoke enthusiastically of upcoming enhancements to it, including access to it from wireless devices and new "Web Companions" running Microsoft's Win CE operating system: "It's something we're really going to promote, and you're going to see it everywhere."

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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