Network: Bill Gates is no longer public enemy number one

The power of Microsoft is more of a myth from the time when the PC was king
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THE RECENT court judgment against Microsoft in the anti-trust case has been warmly welcomed by many in the Internet industry. The Redmond guys were a constant threat to the freedom of the Internet. For five years, their marketing gurus were forcing Microsoft solutions on surfers by leveraging the Windows distribution muscle. That was not always for the good of the Net, slowing down progress, with Bill Gates and his gang trying to impose their own, often inferior products as the Net standard on the back of their monopoly in operating systems area.

However, the irony of the ruling is that the spirit of the omnipresent and ultra-powerful Microsoft had already begun to fade away some time ago. Over the last six months, since other platforms for communications and Net access have come to the fore, Microsoft has been lagging behind.

Microsoft has got pretty much nowhere with its attempt to control mobiles phones. That game is big, getting bigger as we speak and Microsoft will not even be a contender. A similar situation exists in the area of personal organisers, with Palm Pilot overwhelmingly winning the hearts and souls of the users on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, Pilot has been attacked by Windows CE-based products, but they are just not sexy enough to compete, losing in the "cool" factor as well as efficiency to the pioneer Palm. CE is too cumbersome and inefficient to make sense in smaller devices, which is the reason why most sensible manufacturers wouldn't touch it with a bargepole, with or without the anti-trust judgment. Would you like to beam your business cards across the breakfast table in Claridge's flashing a CE device? Most of us wouldn't be caught dead with the thing. So game, set and match to Palm, which has clearly emerged as the organiser of choice for the 21st century.

Another area of major growth is the interactive TV - anybody still waiting for WebTV? Me neither, and even Bill's investment in NTL in the last attempt at taking over the Internet on TV was a move that hasn't quite delivered, either. NTL has spent a lot of money on a mysterious ad campaign on the back of every bus in the country, but I still can't get its set-top box for love or money. Perhaps this will be a case of "Internet in the bus", and the point of the ads is that NTL is putting a mobile Net cafe on the 74 to Putney Bridge. Seems a faster way to get people online than waiting for the Godot of their digital box delivery.

Add to that long list of cock-ups the triumphant rollout of Sega Dreamcast, providing what all of us wanted in the first place, great games with the Internet access for under pounds 200. Interestingly, Dreamcast sort of has some CE support, but no software on the market actually uses it, which perhaps says something about the attractiveness of development on CE. Obviously, Sega was paying lip service to Bill, but doing its own thing all along anyway.

This all adds up to a pretty poor show by Microsoft. In today's polymorphic world, where we access technology via a multiplicity of devices, each running off a different set-up, it seems that the power of Microsoft is more of a myth from the time when the PC was the king.

It is true that the judgment has been a long time coming, and that all is not won yet, as many industry pundits predict that Bill will do a deal rather than let the US Government break up his beloved Microsoft. However, little does it matter anymore, as the technology, empowered by the heterogenous nature of the access devices is taking justice in its own hands, powering away with alternatives that were not strong enough separately but can beat the bully easily when they all combine forces. It is like a hydra with many heads - every time Microsoft invests in a new device, trying to kill the competition, the technology re-emerges somewhere else with two new, non-Windows-based heads.

The real problems and obstacles to freedom of technological development is not Microsoft anymore. It's our own British Telecom. BT has become so complacent that it is not even pretending anymore. The speed of investment in the infrastructure is slowing down, and if you look carefully at the quality of the UK network, the congestions and busy signal on your ISP is quite often related to problems at BT's end. ISPs are investing heavily in their back ends and capacity. BT needs to deliver its end, and focus on solid investment here in the UK instead of grandiose ideas like building portals in China. What will stop the UK from maintaining a competitive edge is the massive delay in DSL rollout. Thanks to BT, we will be stuck with the medieval modem speeds well into the year 2001.

Every time I hear the Government bubbling about the UK being first in e-commerce, my stomach turns upside down. I have just come back from the US, where DSL is forging ahead, creating a whole new infrastructure for e-commerce. Here, in the backwater of Internet band-width, we will have to stifle our development needs, lose the competitive edge to Americans (again) and wait for Oftel to force BT to give up its DSL monopoly. Why can't we have a break-up into Baby BTs, like wAT&T in the States? That would create a more competitive environment for e-commerce.