Barbie has turned 40, but it's far more important to me that Bill Gates will soon turn 44.
Bill and I were born 4 months apart, and thus I've always compared myself to him. He has more money, but I have a longer marriage and more kids, and we both seem to enjoy our work, so I figured we were running about even in the Great Game of Life.
Well, ol' Gigadollar may be about to fall behind. The Justice Department's got him down. Steve Ballmer (Roberto Guizueta to his Robert Woodruff?) is actually running the show in Redmond. But if Gates left Microsoft, what would happen to Microsoft's stock price and, thus, the Gates fortune? (Nothing good.)
Outside his public appearances, Bill usually works alone these days. His Dad has a fine job giving away his son's money (over $5 billion is in the kitty now). I've even heard reports of his taking over restaurants so he can talk to friends about things like robotics, where the horizon is still far in the distance and the government policy is subsidy, not anti-trust.
Back at Bill's office they've got a new e-commerce strategy . Firefly's P3P technology is now "Central ID." They've acquired CompareNet for shopping comparisons. Media Metrix now has Microsoft's Web properties listed as number two behind AOL . They're talking up a new "standard" called BizTalk, based on XML, which could be important in b2b commerce. Maybe best of all, most of this won't be out for a year - vapor to get the juices flowing. The problem is that even $2-4 billion in sales in a few years won't mean much of a push to a $400 billion market cap. The real headline is the anti-trust settlement, and that's out of Bill's hands.
How many times can you give the same speech before it all runs together? How often can you go to Hong Kong to push buttons when you don't really run your own company? If I were Mr. Bill, in other words, I'd be looking for an exit strategy, too.
I know, it's easier said than done. Gates can't get his $92 billion out quickly or easily - too many others' fortunes are involved. But it seems to be a process that's already begun. And we return to the question I began with. What will Bill Gates' Second Act be like? He's seen the world, made the fortune, built the house - he's even begun giving it away.
So here's a Clue for Mr. Bill. I'm certain 3Com would be willing to sell the U.S. Robotics name for a reasonable price. Even a single billion could support a host of useful robotics start-ups. (Start by supporting the new Open Service Gateway specification - you can always "enhance" it later.) Maybe you can find us the real Dr. Susan Calvin . I'm certain your family will be happier with you if you're happier with your work. And if you need a ghost for that robotics book, Bill, drop me a line...
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
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Now back to the show...
What will it take to make Linux a real competitor to Microsoft Windows? It will take two things -- standards and shrink-wrap. How far did the LinuxWorld show in San Jose go along that path? Perhaps it didn't go far enough.
GNOME, an open source graphical user interface for Linux, was the most promising announcement of the show. It's good stuff, and Red Hat , the distributor that's gotten tons of money lately from computer industry heavy hitters , contributed mightily to the effort.
The problem with Linux is no one's in charge , meaning it's hard for a decision on it to become final. Daniel Quinlan, chairman of Linux Standard Base, is supposed to take this role, but he admitted in his own speech at the conference he really can't. That puts things back into the Red Hat, which must find a way to stay compatible with the Standard Base, keep its own investors happy, and support real applications. That will be a very difficult line to walk, because while the GNUs who wrote GNOME have an automatic distrust of their "friends" at IBM and Oracle , both those companies distrust one another, and anyone who tries to call a halt to the arguments immediately becomes suspect.
But it will be impossible to take Linux seriously until we see shrink-wrapped applications in stores. For Linux to be a true contender, in other words, it must be as easy and simple to build a complete Linux system -- including applications -- as it is to build a Windows system. This gets us back to the line being walked at Red Hat. Will those applications be offered online as open source, even as they're being sold in stores? They had better be, or the whole Tower of Babel will collapse.
Despite my high hopes for Linux (and the industry being developed around it,) my guess is it will always remain a niche product.
The Government, Here to Help
Sometimes Scott McNealy should take a lesson from the late, great Joe DiMaggio and just be quiet. Getting quoted in Time Magazine telling folks they no longer have any privacy and should just "get over it" won't just cost Republicans some votes (among Republicans), it'll get people mad, and it'll get the government active.
Ooops, too late. The Administration and Congress have already gotten the scent. Whether privacy is real or not (and it's not, really ) this is not a fact you want to let out. Instead, it's a potent political issue, one that can do for Al Gore what Willie Horton did for George Bush. McNealy should know better than to hand it over without a fight.
Courses for Horses
Privacy is compromised in the real world by getting treated as an economic good. Whether it's done in exchange for a contest entry , free Internet access, entry to a site , or a free PC, you can sell your personal data, and take responsibility for the marketing flood that follows.
Like many people, I thought this idea was stupid when it was put to me in reverse, by the folks at GoTo.Com . But in the last month I've seen a lot of notes from businesspeople happy with the site's keyword selling business model. Keywords are sold, hits are posted in order of the sale price, and when you click they pay. It doesn't sound like it should work, but apparently it does.
There is a very important Clue here. When analyzing business ideas, first consider the needs of the market.
Inside the Lycos War
Wall Street has gotten this Clue. People who are in the Internet business know it better than outsiders do. Barry Diller is fast becoming the victim of this realization.
Diller did make some good points at Jupiter's recent Consumer Online conference . Most of the equity value being created by Internet merchants is phony. Only real sales and profits matter in the long run. But, as we've pointed out here before, Lycos' Robert Davis is far more likely to earn those profits than is Diller, or a Clueless designee such as ISN's Alan Citron. What the Street really wanted was a financial guarantee that Diller will keep his hands off, which it could have gotten had Lycos and Ticketmaster-CitySearch shareholders gotten 11% more of the combined USA-Lycos than they did.
Instead Diller got greedy, and he's likely blown the deal. He insists he won't re-open negotiations. So Lycos' value has plummeted while that of CMGI, run by Lycos board member David Weatherell, has soared. Last week Weatherell noticed that his outfit was now worth twice what Lycos was, meaning he could take it out at a premium to the current price of $100/share. In doing that, he could also avoid registering CMGI as a mutual fund. So Weatherell quit the Lycos board and hired an investment banker.
The winner here, as we predicted, is Robert Davis. Diller must sweeten his bid to get a deal and CMGI controls the board. In other words he'll either get what he's got or he'll get something better. Life doesn't get much sweeter than that.
Clued-in is the Bill Payment Council whose proposed bill presentment standard could prove truly useful, and sooner than you think.
Clueless is TheStreet.Com for treating Internet Shopping Network's Alan Citron as someone who has a Clue.