Industry disrupter is not a term that is widely used to describe Microsoft these days. But during much of eWEEK's 30 years of covering the IT industry's pulse, particularly the 1990s and early 2000s, the company—first headed by CEO Bill Gates—was often exactly that.
The software maker from Redmond, Wash., was undeniably instrumental in helping push PCs into the mainstream. History-making products such as Windows 3.1, 95, XP and 7, helped cement Microsoft's operating systems as the standard by which others were judged.
Windows became a familiar sight on business and consumer PCs of all kinds. Microsoft software products dominated the PC market, and more importantly, the company laid the foundation for a vibrant consumer Windows application market that empowered developers and accelerated early Internet adoption.
But the way that the Microsoft fought its way to the top of the PC market with its operating systems and applications, and chased the Netscape Navigator Web browser out of the market with Internet Explorer brought the company much criticism and eventually led to a federal antitrust judgment in 2000, United States vs. Microsoft Corp., that found that the company was engaging in "abusive" market practices.
As part of the settlement in the case, Microsoft had to submit to years of federal oversight of its business practices to show that it was no longer engaging in monopolistic practices.
It would be hard to argue that the settlement appreciably slowed the company's growth or in itself threatened Microsoft's position on top of the enterprise PC software market. However, other forces started to come into play by the middle of the 21st century's first decade that showed Microsoft no longer enjoyed an unassailable position as a producer of PC applications and operating system.
Today, even as the company continues to rake in profits, Microsoft is facing many competitive challenges that it didn't foresee when it was fighting that antitrust case in 2000. There are questions now whether Microsoft can maintain its position as a technology leader at a time when the industry has moved beyond the PC as an essential business computing platform. Now, some of the company's past stumbles offer some intriguing perspective on how the company is trying to navigate shifts in the IT landscape.
One of biggest market changes that Microsoft has had to contend with appeared when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, which opened the floodgates to a massive market for touch-enabled smartphones. Microsoft, meanwhile, limped along with its aging, less-than-intuitive Windows Mobile platform until 2010 when a more modern Windows Phone OS hit the scene.
Similarly, when Apple shipped its market-leading iPad in 2010, the best Redmond could muster was Windows 7 on clunky "tablets" from partner OEMs until the company's sleek Surface slate arrived in late 2012.
The company, able to weather past technology trends such as the graphical user interface or Web browsers, with a slow and steady approach, watched as smartphones and tablets displaced the PC in just a few short years as the computing device of choice for both consumers and business users. The post-PC era was in full swing.
Worse, in the current bring-your-own-device (BYOD) climate, personal and work devices are often one and the same. As a result, a growing number of businesses are letting their employees supply and use their own mobile computers, which may not necessarily include devices powered by Windows.