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Microsoft's Fate and DEC

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In this thought-provoking article titled, "Will Microsoft Learn DEC's Lesson?", the author makes a great comparison between the current state of affairs at Microsoft and the once mighty DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) headed by the late Ken Olsen.

I don't know how old the author is and if he remembers the glory days of DEC, but I do. Fresh out of UCONN's Engineering school, I was hired by an industrial division of General Electric as a VAX/VMS programmer. My memory is sketchy, but I think the machine at the time was a VAX 8810. It was so big and complex that it needed another computer, a PDP-11 I believe, just to boot it. So many things could go wrong that a reboot was an exercise in anxiety and patience.

I was so enamored by this minibus-sized contraption that I went beyond my programming duties and learned quite a bit of system management skills on it. So when the VAX sysadmin left for another job, I was ready to slide into his position. Looking back, as a 24 year-old, I was a bit young for the task but I did alright. I kept the systems running pretty smoothly, meanwhile undertaking a few major upgrades. Before I finished my tenure, I had the giant VAX replaced with a smaller, more modern VAX (model 4000, I believe). Through it all I remember the big budgets and the large sums of money we spent with DEC. The company was a money-making machine back then.

I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to DEC for "booting" my professional career. I may not remember any VMS commands now, but my VAX/VMS years were the stepping stones in a long career that continues today.

DEC's demise came fast, pretty much starting with Compaq's acquisition. By then, despite Compaq's statements of support, VAX/VMS was becoming irrelevant, and therefore DEC was irrelevant. Altavista.com had been DEC's last attempt at innovation outside VAX/VMS. As ingenious as it was and as popular as it became for a short span of time, the likes of Yahoo, Lycos and Infospace quickly crowded and stifled it.

Unlike DEC which was tied to only one product (VAX/VMS), Microsoft operates varying businesses and is not afraid of trying new fields. The problem is that Microsoft is too tentative and unfocused. For example, I like their .NET platform, but any developer can see that it's fragmented into many different technologies and initiatives. It's impossible to keep up with them.

They promote C# for a while, then swing to VB, then come around to C++, and then off to F# and IronRuby and IronPython. And this is just for coding languages, never mind the scattered frameworks, technologies, and platforms. I have, more than one time, considered switching my company's web infrastructure from WISA (Windows/IIS/SQL Server/ASP.NET) to LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP), and I'm a big C#/CLR fan.

Anyways, if Microsoft does fall, it certainly won't be quick like DEC and it probably won't be only because of its fanatical devotion to Windows and MS Office. Challenges abound, but Microsoft is still relevant and can prevail. But first it may need to clear house, clear its head and then get back whatever it was it once had and then lost.

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