At Large If I were a rich man

At Large If I were a rich man

Even after removing his shoes, Matthew JC. Powell finds he cannot count to four billion . . .

So, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has bought out Josef Stalin, and the unlikely alliance between the two is thus strengthened against the common enemy, Adolf Hitler. Or is it?

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you obviously missed the column about Jim Barksdale's testimony in the Microsoft antitrust trial. Normally I'd tell you when it was and expect you to go look it up yourselves (surely you save these things in a clipping folder?), but I'm feeling generous, so I'll simply tell you what it was about.

At the trial, Barksdale, the head honcho at Netscape, was called upon to elaborate on e-mail exchanges between himself and Steve Case, his opposite number at America Online. The two had a role-playing game they played, in which Case pretended to be Roosevelt and Barksdale imagined he was Stalin, and the two of them were allied against Bill Gates, whom they unkindly referred to as Hitler.

I should note for the record that I regard Gates as a fairly personable chap, if somewhat overly competitive and ruthless. Comparing him with one of history's worst monsters is downright unfair.

I hadn't wanted to report too closely on the antitrust trial, since I figured it would get pretty wide coverage elsewhere. But I hadn't counted on such bizarre evidence being given. It was made even more so but Barksdale's almost child-like protestation that he had wanted to be Churchill, but Case wouldn't let him. You have to laugh.

The latest development in this strange alliance is the purchase by AOL of Netscape Communications, holus-bolus, for the princely sum (or should I say presidential sum) of $US4.2 billion (which is quite a lot in terms of wartime dollars). There's the usual disclaimers and qualifiers about approval by shareholders and regulatory bodies that always accompanies such acquisitions, but you and I know what bum looks like when we see it. The chances that the deal will not go through are roughly equivalent to the likelihood that I will make my operatic debut on Australia Day as Papagena in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Which is to say, don't count on it.

Microsoft responded stunningly quickly to the news, pointing to the merged organisation as an even bigger threat to poor little Microsoft than the two companies represented separately. "Look Mummy," said Bill to the DOJ, "they're ganging up on me!"

Rather than removing her apron, taking young Billy to her ample bosom and drying his tears, though, the DOJ (with equal rapidity) offered little more than a rebuke. "Look what you've done," she said, "you've hurt them so badly they can barely walk without each other's help."

Frankly, Microsoft's claim that it will be damaged irreparably by the Netscape/AOL deal is akin to Goliath complaining that David is picking up rocks. Yes, maybe a lucky shot could do some damage, but it isn't all that likely.

Microsoft's argument is that Netscape's rebellion has been brought to an end not by the practices of Microsoft, but by the monopolistic attitude of America Online. Microsoft isn't buying Netscape, nor is it entering into an anticompetitive deal to divide the market with the company. It is watching helplessly as the growing behemoth of AOL swallows a major browser company. Who knows? Microsoft could be next!

Twaddle. The fact that Netscape has been forced into an alliance, and an alliance in which it is the junior partner, is evidence that Microsoft's strategy to defeat it has succeeded, and succeeded well. It has removed Netscape as an independent entity from the Internet software market (although its brand will continue). It has eliminated one choice from the already limited selection of software vendors consumers had before the merger. If that isn't monopoly, I'll go directly to jail without passing go.

And also frankly (when have I not been frank with you?), I am not at all sure that this was the best move for AOL to make. If Steve Case had a multi-billion-dollar war chest with which to do battle, he could have spent it in more subtle and perhaps more effective ways than he has chosen.

Irritating intervals

Acquiring the power company supplying Microsoft's Redmond headquarters and turning the lights on and off at irritating intervals would have been good.

And when the power's on, he could have acquired all the local radio stations and instructed them to play Hooked on a Feeling constantly until all Microsoft employees became certifiably insane. With the change, he could have bought every Internet user on the planet a nice lunch and a T-shirt that says "I like Steve better than Bill".

OK, it might not win him market share, but it would have been more fun than buying Netscape.

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