Despite the court ruling Microsoft is a monopoly, there are still some corners of the computing universe left to competition. Take the case of both AOL and Palm Computing. These two companies have made very nice businesses and are the last bastions of independent (read: non-Windows devices) left on the planet. Microsoft has had some trouble with making any significant inroads in the hand-held and cell phone markets. And if you think these aren't important, consider that both are growing faster than the general PC market, and both are gaining ground in functionality.
Microsoft's Windows CE has been a dud: it is just too much trouble and has too few developers compared to any Palm device. Palms are now popping up just about everywhere, and I was treated to a spectacle at a recent meeting where participants compared their particular version and model with pride -- one guy had more RAM, while another had a vintage US Robotics model. I sensed the level of testosterone rising and somewhat left out, since I leave my Palm on my bike to keep track of my mileage and speed.
I'm not alone in finding interesting uses for my Palm besides keeping track of appointments and being able to beam your electronic business card across the conference table. There are companies who are placing Palms inside private aircraft to keep track of local weather conditions and others who are designing geographic applications to find the nearest restaurant or nightclub. CE never captured this kind of buzz: it was just Windows Lite, with all of baggage of real Windows with none of the advantages. Microsoft is trying again with what it calls Embedded Windows. This is a version of NT that is stored on a chip, and Intel has announced a thin server last week. I don't hold much hope here for this incarnation, either.
The real benefit for Palm devices will come when web applications can work with wireless modems on the Palm OS. We are starting to see some early adopters and primitive applications here, but the combination of hardware and software is still too daunting for the average person. Plus most wireless modems are too troublesome, even the built-in one that comes with the Palm VII. I expect to see more developments in this area in the coming year that could turn the usability tide. Of course, none of this has anything to do with Microsoft -- could you imagine a version of Internet Explorer for the Palm? It would require a 8 Mb RAM upgrade along with downloading a new patch to the Palm OS. And it would crash the whole device and wipe out all your contacts, and only connect to Microsoft-approved web sites. No, the Palm may be one of the last stands we have for competitive computing, and most of us should celebrate this fact.
Another last stand for competition could be with data- oriented cell phones. I've used a variety of hand held data devices for several years, starting with an Ericsson Mobidem and moving towards cell phones that can do some kind of data conversation. My biggest application is checking my email when on the road. I don't need to carry a laptop anymore: it is far easier to use a local Kinko's (where I am actually composing this missive), a public library, or a borrowed Internet-connected PC.
When it comes to cell phones, we have to look beyond Microsoft to find the innovators. And a good place to start is with AOL. What does AOL have to do with cell phones, you ask? Tegic, a small Seattle-based company, was acquired by them last year. Tegic makes software that allows you to enter data on a screen phone more easily, using some clever text recognition algorithms. They are in the process of porting AOL's popular Instant Messaging application to these screen phones. Imagine the demand by your local teenager when this happens. Imagine your cellular bill, too. This could be trouble. This could be another kind of monopoly in the making: trying to get your teen to log off and rejoin the family is hard enough when they are connected via a desktop computer. It used to be a fight over whom got to take out the family car at night -- soon we'll see arguments over who gets to use the screen phone.
Of course, let's not forget AOL's other businesses, including selling Internet access to the masses. Microsoft's MSN is still lagging far behind in this area.
So, for those of you bemoaning your stock portfolio today, think about Palm and AOL, some bright spots in our industry, showing that behind every Microsoft monopoly there are a few small corners of computing where competition can flourish.
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