Microsoft Courts a Catastrophe

By continually showing contempt for customers' concerns, Microsoft is courting a catastrophe.

Markets crash, animals attack and pervasive fads are suddenly out of favor. Catastrophe theorists offer controversial models that try to explain such changes; Microsoft Office may soon provide a convincing demonstration of their ideas.

Buyers of Microsofts ubiquitous suite, already vexed by costly license terms, may decide theyve had enough after the companys Halloween surprise: the announcement that Office 11 will not run on the Windows 9x base, which supports more than half the present population of PCs.

Corporate users of Windows 9x have many motivations for remaining with that platform. Many are using custom applications and specialized hardware—the submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg of the PC industry—that cant be moved to Windows 2000/XP without unproductive investment in changing something that works just fine. There could be no worse time to demand an operating system replacement—with attendant hardware upgrades—to support a sweeping rip-and-replace of familiar applications.

The supposed justification of enhanced security is a self-inflicted wound; it reminds the enterprise buyer that Microsoft has been careless in the past, while current events make it clear that the company is still careless.

But Microsoft has also announced ambitious goals to transform the next release of Office with XML-based automation. This looks like a profit center that wants to continue being a star, not a cash cow, in the parlance once made famous by Boston Consulting Group. The IT market is driven today by rapid ROI, not by the novelties that technologists can newly enable.

From one side of its mouth, Microsoft promotes the programmable Web; from the other side, it asserts that desktop applications must take on a richer role. The former argument sells more powerful server-side products; the latter meets the needs of PC builders to help keep upgrade cycles down to three years, despite a clear trend toward five-year PC lifetimes.

By showing continued contempt for customers concerns, Microsoft risks a mass defection that could slaughter its cash cow—and loosen, perhaps lose, its grip on corporate desktops.