Enough rope to hang yourself?

Microsoft's extension of the deadline for its licensing changes to July 2002 may offer a brief respite, but IT directors around...

Microsoft's extension of the deadline for its licensing changes to July 2002 may offer a brief respite, but IT directors around the UK will recognise some or all of this one-sided conversation taking place in the CEO's office.

"Yes I know sir - sorry Gerald. You and your other chief exec friends in the CBI and IOD hate nationalised industries and monopolies, but this is different.

"How? Well you see Microsoft isn't a nationalised organisation. It's owned by shareholders, many of them employees and most of them are pretty rich too. So that's all right, er Gerald, isn't it?

"Well yes, it is a monopoly. But we didn't mean it to be, it just sort of grew that way.

"How? It actually started in the early 1980s when IBM used the software produced by a couple of guys from this tiny company, as the operating system for its new PCs. IBM thought it would swallow up this little outfit at some stage, spitting out the bits it didn't want. Anyway, none of the top IT people at that time believed the PC was anything more than a toy.

"Well yes Gerald, we do seem to have got it wrong. We weren't to know that ordinary people would start using PCs in large numbers. Then other manufacturers started making PCs and, to be compatible with IBM, they used the same operating system.

"After all, we used to tell the users: 'You try and do anything yourself, you'll be in real trouble'. Yes it was curious when our treasury department strung half a dozen PCs together and got a trading system up and running before we'd even completed the initial feasibility phase for a mainframe system. Of course, we said it wouldn't last.

"Well, yes Gerald, it did last and made an awful lot of money for the company. Strange really.

"Did anybody think that one day Microsoft would be bigger than IBM? At that time no one in the world thought a software company from Seattle could be bigger than IBM.

"What about the Japanese? We didn't think much about them in those days. They just copied things, didn't they?

"Compatibility? Well you know how I keep advising you, Gerald, how important it is for everything we use to not only be compatible within our company but also with everyone else, so we can communicate with them. Well yes, I suppose it is a good way to allow a monopoly to develop. But it's rather like trains, you can build what you want so long as it's 4ft 8.5in gauge. Oh, you don't like trains either

"Of course, Gerald, when the Internet came along Sorry, who owns the Internet? No one really.

"Yes it is rather funny that I recommended we base our whole future business strategy on using the Internet when nobody owns it and you can't pull any one person in to shout at them when it goes wrong or is hacked. Hacking? Well, I'll explain more about that another day.

"Anyway, the Internet came along, we needed ways to access it and find information and, well yes, most of us use a Microsoft product to do so.

"Yes, there is quite a good alternative. But you see Gerald, the Microsoft product comes so conveniently bundled with all its other products we use like e-mail.

"E-mail? You know that memo you personally sent out to all the MDs and global chiefs saying there was far too much time being wasted with electronic correspondence, thousands of useless copies etc and it had to reduced? Well that's e-mail. And it's mainly a Microsoft product that is used. So, Gerald, it all looks neat and tidy and things work with other things. I, and nearly all of my fellow senior IT chiefs, have actively gone down this route and encouraged this standardisation on one company's set of products.

"Bundling? You don't really have time for me to go into that now Gerald, but it's quite a convenient way of getting everything you want - in a bundle you see? And not have to spend time seeing if other products will be compatible. Could it prove more expensive? Well yes, it could be, but it's so convenient.

"That's very perceptive Gerald. There is just about global dependence on Microsoft and its products for our financial and commercial operations.

"What did I want to see you about? Well it's like this: Microsoft wants to change how it does business with us and frankly it's going to blow my budget away. I really can't accept those cost control targets we agreed at my last performance review.

"Why come to you? Well, we can't stop using Microsoft products can we? I mean, it would take a very long time and a lot of risk if we were to try to change and nobody is using anything else remotely approaching our scale, so I can't promise anything. And my IT colleagues and I thought it would be a jolly good idea if you, as global chief of a blue chip, spoke very firmly to Microsoft in the US - the UK office only takes orders - and tell them not to be greedy and to go back to the old arrangements which we are all comfortable with.

"A P45 on my way out? Is that a new operating system you've heard of Gerald? Gosh, do you really think we could use something else"

The author was head of IT in a major UK company and, yes, he has been guilty of just about everything in this piece. So, he points out, have most of Computer Weekly's readers

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