For years we have predicted the fall of Microsoft. Though the prediction always seemed lunatic, the real issue was when.
Bill Gates’ departure (in about two years) from Microsoft, which was announced in mid-June, is an example of why the company’s ultimate decline is a no-risk prediction. In the long run, that means law firms will have more choices, but software selection may not be as easy.
The incentive of managing his money has become greater than Mr. Gates’ desire to make more. In fact, he can hardly avoid making more; it comes naturally without even going to work. The turning point for Gates came when Microsoft started paying dividends. We felt Microsoft should have paid shareholders dividends long ago. Anyway, its decision to start paying them in 2004 may be seen as the beginning of the post-Gates Microsoft.
The departure of the driving force for what appears on most people’s desktops is no mere blip. Gates leaving Microsoft is a potential earthquake. He molded us to accept eight-character file names and 640K RAM limits as though they were not limits at all. He took a puny company and a narrow idea and created seemingly invincible standards, humbling the large (like IBM), the established (like Netscape) and those who appeared to have better ideas.
Gates is leaving at the top of his game, and yet Microsoft may be even stronger without him, at least in the short run. It has excellent personnel at the moment. But how much longer can Microsoft continue to dominate desktop software? The loss of its leader is a mark of success, but success has its problems.
A security firm recently said the 10 most common examples of malicious software all target Windows. It said none of that “malware” was capable of infecting Mac OS X. Success is spelled t-a-r-g-e-t. And in addition to fending off malware from its popular products, Microsoft seems to be forever defending multinational antitrust suits. Witness the recent $357 million European Union fine, plus the risk of additional daily monetary penalties.
Some speculate Microsoft Office has contributed nearly half of the company’s profits. But Office is being pressured by the free OpenOffice suite, and is also being pushed to adopt open-standard plug-ins. Growth in Microsoft Office sales is reported to be slowing.
So how will Gates’ departure affect software choices available to lawyers? Law firms should:
• Be open to Linux, particularly as servers. Keene, N.H., intellectual property lawyer Dan Coolidge switched his entire office to Linux a little less than a year ago, and he has not looked back. He gets better performance at lower cost. He occasionally runs a PC emulator under Linux for a few legacy programs, but anticipates using that less. In our office, our Linux servers (which are primarily serving Windows desktop machines) are faster and more reliable than our Windows servers–and Linux is free.
• Have at least a few Macintosh desktops. They are clearly better for some applications, and at the minimum they are are different enough to add utility.
• Consider OpenOffice for marginal machines, home machines or even main machines. Be wary of becoming 100 percent into anything, including Microsoft. Maybe nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, but at some point someone should have been. The same thing holds true for Microsoft.
Microsoft has not figured out a way to grow beyond this planet. Nothing short of that will permit it to maintain exponential growth. Exponential growth is addictive, and withdrawal is tough.
Lawyers, meanwhile, have always needed to think about the way they run their practices. And as choice expands, the “think” requirement is becoming even more important.