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Charles Cooper

So there I was trying my best to get a midlevel Microsoft manager to take the bait.

“Does Microsoft now feel confident it’s found a way to slow the rise of Firefox–maybe even win back some lost customers?”

Earlier in the day, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was onstage at the RSA Conference in San Francisco to unveil a beta of an updated version of Internet Explorer, a Web browser that’s been begging for new security features–let alone a facelift–for ages.

Microsoft promoted the introduction as a big deal. Naturally, I thought my interlocutor would jump at the opportunity. C’mon, I thought, run some jive about how IE is all ready to rout those pests from the Mozilla Foundation once and for all.

Instead I was left high and dry. All I got was marketing mumbo-jumbo about how the company strives to do good by its customers and that’s the ultimate payoff–and so on and so forth.

Maybe that’s the standard PR practice “going forward,” as the jargon-meisters are wont to say. But Microsoft wasn’t always so reluctant to speak frankly. In fact, the company was damn good at sticking it to the competition.

The competition from Firefox is forcing the company to step things up.

During the early 1990s rivalry with IBM’s OS/2, Microsoft pulled out all the stops to make sure reporters were convinced the world was a better place because of Windows. Microsoft’s marketing prowess came in handy because IBM had a better product. The reason OS/2 failed was because Big Blue was utterly inept at making its case.

Company executives were too high-minded to call a spade a spade. Instead, IBM excelled at putting reporters to sleep with mind-numbing recitations of all its customer advantages. Maybe it was a corporate culture thing, but Microsoft was faster, smarter and meaner–and it paid off. Management knew what was on the line: nothing less than control of the PC desktop and the potential billions of dollars in future revenues that would accrue to the winner.

A similar scenario played out later in the decade during the so-called browser wars. Microsoft executives had no compulsions about trashing Netscape–publicly or privately–to reporters. (Was it really true that Marc Andreessen was “a cheeseburger-addicted frat boy,” as I recall hearing during one singular briefing back then.)

Again, the stakes were high. Netscape sought to replace Microsoft Windows with its Navigator Web browser as the de facto application development platform for personal computers. Had the strategy succeeded, Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer today would be pumping gas for a living.

History obviously worked out differently. IE ultimately caught up and then surpassed Navigator. The company’s aggressiveness also ran afoul of antitrust statutes and Microsoft wound up in a drawn-out court battle with the U.S. Justice Department.

Firefox poses the latest challenge. The Mozilla folks say they have registered more than 25 million downloads since the release of Firefox 1.0 last November. Not too shabby a performance, even if some of those 25 million happen to be multiple downloads. Full disclosure: Yours truly switched from IE to Firefox last fall and hasn’t regretted the decision for a second.

Microsoft’s brass remains low-key, but the competition from Firefox is forcing the company to step things up. The beta version of IE 7 for XP SP2 will be ready later this summer. For Microsoft, which fought tooth and nail over the years to keep the browser fused to the Windows operating system, this is quite a big deal.

It’s a gamble, but it’s also a sensible idea. The next version of Windows is due out sometime in 2006, and Microsoft is notorious for missing shipping dates for the release of operating systems. Microsoft can’t wait another two years to answer the challenge from Firefox. But if the interim browser update fails to stem the tide, get ready for a flood of verbal pyrotechnics coming out of Redmond.