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    Paranoid delusions aside, Microsoft does want to rule the world--by driving serious business computing applications

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #311  October 10, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Last week, we took a look at software giant Microsoft Corporation, whose operating systems run an estimated 80 per cent of the world's 200 million-plus personal computers. After years of offering also-ran word-processors and spreadsheets, the Microsoft Office package has 80 per cent of the sales in this hot product category. Even on rival Apple's Macintosh platform, Microsoft is the biggest-selling software company.

    Being number one, of course, means attracting more than your share of gossip and rumours, and becoming the subject of unprecedented resentment from people (and not just business competitors) who fear that Microsoft wants to control the world of computing. It's been said that just because you're not paranoid, it doesn't mean that someone isn't following you, and similarly, even though Microsoft has been subject to a wide range of half-truths about its overweening ambition, Bill Gates' baby does want to rule the world, if only in order to maintain its rate of growth. There's only one problem: while Microsoft has ended up with a dominant position in desktop and personal-computer software, it has a poor track record in other important areas of business computing. But it's trying....

    Take networks: despite Microsoft's years of marketing products like LAN Manager, competitor Novell continues to define corporate networking. Various forms of Unix remain the operating system of choice for the technologically important workstation market. And the up-and-coming model of networks of PCs and workstations replacing aging mainframes to run corporate databases suggests a future where these systems will play an ever greater role in business computing. And while the desktop PC market may be beginning to stagnate (has there really been that much real change in word processing lately?), these areas are where we can expect continued growth.

    Microsoft doesn't plan to stay a bit-player in these high-growth areas. While Windows 95 is aimed at the desktop computer-user at home or in the office, Microsoft is hoping to move "serious" business-computer users directly to its high-end Windows NT product.

    NT (for 'New Technology') seemed a bit of a disappointment when it was released a couple of years ago. It took too much RAM and was too slow to replace Windows 3.1 on user desktops. But that wasn't really its target: Microsoft intended it for two other markets. In its Server version, it was intended to compete with Novell Netware, and in its workstation version, it was intended to provide an alternative to Unix. Sales started slowly, but have gradually taken off, helped by a couple of trends: newer versions of NT run on less RAM, while performing better, and computers with 16 megs or more of RAM are more common than they were when NT was released. As a result, some businesses are seriously considering skipping Windows 95 altogether and adopting NT as their working platform, especially since most business applications designed for Windows 95 will also run under NT.

    And while huge numbers of business desktop computers are running Microsoft Office on computers running Windows (either 3.1 or 95), Microsoft hopes to repeat this feat for businesses currently running anything from a Novell network to an IBM mainframe. BackOffice bundles NT Server with a set of applications aimed at "serious" business computing--Mail Server, SQL Server, SNA Server, and System Management Server. And soon, Microsoft hopes to add Exchange Server to compete with the popular Lotus Notes. With these, businesses could construct custom systems to handle the bulk of their computing needs while gaining the security and robustness that even NT's critics have praised.

    And because NT runs on a wide range of hardware (there are even versions for the Power-PC from IBM and Apple), Microsoft will no longer be dependent on hardware built on Intel chips. In future, Microsoft says, a version of NT code-named CAIRO will be used, along with future versions of BackOffice, on the computers running your business's network and database, as well as on the desktop PCs.

    In July, The Economist put Bill Gates on its cover, just as Time magazine had a few months earlier. In the Economist' version, however, he was pictured as a spider, wrapping up his competitors, and extending his web throughout the computer industry. Quietly, patiently (Microsoft supported Windows for five years from 1985 to 1990 before it caught on as a popular computing platform), it is hoping to extend its reach from the desktop to the machines that, behind the scenes, are increasingly vital for business computing. And other strategies are unfolding to keep Microsoft growing in non-business areas ranging from games to cable TV.

    It's not as exciting as speculating that Microsoft wants to read your love letters off your hard drive, but it may have more important implications for the way we all use computers to do business in the last years of this century, and the early years of the next one.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan