I can't help feeling that, in among all the brouhaha about Microsoft's investment in Apple, lies something more serious than the majority of pundits have so far predicted. I can't stop myself thinking that, if we supposedly live in a capitalist economic order, with competition in the marketplace as king, just why should Microsoft come in like a knight in shining armour to rescue the floundering, fruitful Rapunzel rather than stab the poor girl in the back?
It could be readily argued that Microsoft would love to see Apple dead, buried, and long forgotten, except in folklore. Arguments about there being a good market for Microsoft products on the Mac are pointless. A market there certainly is, but if the Mac was dead, what would those users turn to - Sun workstations? Network Computers? Its unlikely. That market is Microsoft's, whether users choose Mac or PC. In fact, if they went PC, Microsoft would get more marketshare - all of the Mac market rather than a goodly proportion as of today.
So where is the pay-off for the company in investing in Apple what is, in practice, little more than small change from Gates?
This is where the cynic steps in. With Microsoft owning over 90% of the desktop operating systems installed (and to be installed), the company is sailing ever-closer to floundering on the rocks of the US anti-trust legislation. This is especially the case as the company tries desperately to find new markets, to sustain its growth, in the departmental and enterprise server sectors - where there are many that still suggest that expectations exceed reality by some way.
If Apple was to roll over and die, there would be literally nothing to protect the company from the threat of anti-trust legislation. This could lead anywhere, from being restricted from entering certain markets to the break-up of the company. With Apple in existence, it can always point to there being an "alternative" - and maybe not talk too loudly about the fact that it is also one of the big suppliers of applications to that market, anyway. Indeed, Microsoft Office was a big seller on the Mac before the PC, and Microsoft has committed to continue supporting it.
More fascinating, however, is the part of the deal concerning a trivial little product called a browser. With the growth of both the Internet and intranets, browsers are rapidly becoming the de facto user interface to the world. More and more applications are becoming web-enabled so that they can be accessed and used via a browser, so this trivial little product is, in fact, fast approaching the point of being the lynch-pin of computing.
The company that owns this technology will own the glue that holds everything together.
Apple has agreed to bundle Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4 with the MacOS, giving the latter another weapon for its increasingly blood-thirsty fight with Netscape. Apple has also agreed to work with Microsoft on Java-related technologies, which must mean that, in effect, it must now be considered in the ActiveX camp. I can't help thinking that $150 million is a ridiculous amount for Apple to sell out its one possible saving grace - the potentially ubiquitous Java standard. For Microsoft this must the biggest coup of all.
It has, with a handful of small change, been able to demonstrate that it can't be anti-trust - "we're even investing in the competition, Yer 'Onour" - but it locks that self-same competition into the one key technology that holds the reins of all future directions in computing.
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