Once, when mainframes ruled the Earth, IBM could make or break its competitors by merely mentioning the name of the next generation of big iron. The early announcement of a new mainframe could freeze the entire market as customers held off purchasing or leasing any new boxes until the next IBM system appeared. A simple price change would roil the market for months. It was indeed the time when dinosaurs ruled.
Microsoft found itself in the same position, not by building mainframes, but by building an OS and a deeply integrated application suite that could swallow any competitor. Spell-checkers, Internet browsers and, more recently, security software fell victim to the companys ability to deliver for free (if you bought the Microsoft product line) what competitors once counted on for their yearly revenues.
The history lesson came to mind recently after Google and Sun held a press conference that was remarkable not for what was offered but for what was not offered. Amid the backslapping and barbs pointed in the direction of Microsofts home office, the announcement consisted of a vague promise that Google and Sun will work together with the only condition being that Sun include a Google tool bar when a user downloads Java.
But the announcement, however vague, was sufficient. The commentary and analysis surrounding the pairing ranged from a staggering blow to the heart of Microsofts Office suite to a glancing blow related to Microsoft still living in a fat-client world in an unfolding universe of Web services to former Sun employee and now Google master of the universe Eric Schmidt doing a drive-by appearance to bolster Scott McNealys standing with the financial analysts. While the substance was lacking, the buzz was overpowering, and sometimes that is all that is required to move markets, shake the competition and get customers to consider new alternatives.
While the Sun-Google public high-five was taking place, I and some of the eWEEK edit team were engaged in a marathon of one-on-one meetings with up-and-coming companies in Silicon Valley and Orange County. These are companies that have put together talent, venture capital and products that are attracting customers. Youll be reading about many of these companies in our pages over the coming months, but I couldnt help but contrast their substance with both the lack of substance of the Google-Sun announcement and the vagueness with which Microsoft often attaches the concept of productivity enhancement as justification for new rounds of software purchases.
New and useful business applications being layered on top of the VOIP infrastructure, simple yet substantial low-cost storage for business backup and disaster recovery, and business intelligence software with reporting tools the user can understand tied to the data precision that IT requires are significantly being addressed by new companies in California and beyond.
Now, if Google (which is on the way to keeping track of everything in the world) and Sun (which is on the way to trying to prove everything in the world is part of the same network) had announced a messaging platform that allows users to easily find one another and securely communicate via e-mail, instant messaging, voice or video, Id be the first to say Microsoft has a big problem. While some analysts focus on whether Google-Sun (SunGoo?) can transform OpenOffice into a Microsoft Office competitor, the next market battle wont be fought with documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint. The next battle for the hearts and minds of business application users will be taking those previous-generation productivity platforms and turning them into business communications platforms.
The newer crop of companies we visited understands IT is in an era of provable substance; now its the turn of Microsoft, Google, Sun and other big vendors to show they have the products to back up their partnerships.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at [email protected].