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Pick-up a Penguin

Sony, it appears, is giving Microsoft cause for concern.

You may remember me telling you that the Linux OS is now available on the PlayStation 2.0. You can’t do much more than write programs with it today but the writing is on the wall – or screen - none the less. Sony has been ‘Penguined’ and there’s worse news to come. Sony has agreed to install Sun’s StarOffice on “many” of its computers and of course Sun is cheerfully writing Microsoft’s epitaph as a consequence.

It’s hard to say whether this is Sony’s revenge for the X-Box or whether the company simply feels that it can make its VAIO PCs more competitive if it leaves out the cost of Microsoft’s ‘commission’ on Office.

Although Microsoft would probably shrug this news off as being inconsequential, it’s hard to ignore the wider implications of a large PC manufacturer such as Sony breaking ranks and letting Microsoft know that its software is too expensive, in contrast with a single-user license for StarOffice.

Of course, many users will still prefer to have Office pre-installed, whatever the cost, a sit is, after all, the industry standard but standards come and go. Remember VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, cc:Mail and even Netscape? Standards are invariably the product of commercial forces. Give enough copies of Internet Explorer away and it becomes the ‘Standard’ Internet browser. Give away enough copies of StarOffice and ……well Sun keeps hoping.

Unlike other computer manufacturers who are rather less intimidated by Microsoft than they were before the anti-trust case, Sony is well-enough diversified and has both the brand and financial muscle to open a crack in Microsoft’s armour.

In December 1997, in my then eBusiness Magazine, I wrote about “The high licensing costs of Office” and that “The industry has reached a fork in the road. In one direction the world has a Microsoft logo right through it and in the other, there’s the hope of more diversity”. Five years later, the logo is there, right enough but diversity hasn’t made much in the way of an appearance.

Every commodity has a financial breaking point. There comes a time when businesses spontaneously arrive at the same conclusion, that a product or a service has become more of a luxury than a necessity and simple economics forces a switch of supplier. A trickle becomes a stream, which rapidly becomes a torrent.

Will Microsoft, I wonder, learn from history or become a victim of history? I’d like a new Jaguar but I can’t afford one and in the middle of a recession in IT spending, businesses are increasingly in the Mondeo-mindset and don’t really care whether James Bond uses Office or not.

All that’s really needed, I suspect, is a single maverick player, like Sony and a gentle enough collective shove from the PC manufacturers to loosen Microsoft’s vice-like grip on the pre-installed universe. It may take another five years but if prices continue to rise, it may not take long.

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