Why Microsoft will never win (again)

There are many great moments in the Wall Street Journal’s retrospective about the changing of the guard at Microsoft, which describes how former CEO Bill Gates fought with — and, in classic Gates fashion, sarcastically undermined — new CEO and friend Steve Ballmer in front of the troops. But one of the things that jumped out at me (as it did at Zoli Erdos) was the part where the article describes the fate of NetDocs, an attempt by Microsoft to grapple with the freight train that was rushing headlong towards the company (and continues to do so): namely, the advent of Web-enabled Office-style applications.

In one case, two vice presidents clashed over the future of NetDocs, a promising effort to offer software programs such as word processing over the Internet. The issue: Because NetDocs risked cannibalizing sales of Microsoft’s cash-cow Office programs, some executives wanted NetDocs killed.

Messrs. Gates and Ballmer were unable to settle on a plan. First, NetDocs ballooned to a 400-person staff, then it got folded into the Office group in early 2001, where it died.

In other words, Microsoft geared up to deal with the potential threat posed by Web apps, and then at some point decided not to. Obviously, the potential for Office-style Web services was mostly that — potential — rather than reality in the late 1990s. So you could argue that Microsoft didn’t really need to deal with it at the time. But just think about how much further along that understanding curve the company would be now, instead of letting the fear of cannibalization push it away. At some point, the company will have to grab that nettle firmly, and it’s not going to get any easier — if anything, it’s only going to get harder.

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