Guest Column: Foe? Partner? No big deal; It's just business

The spectacle of capitalism's creative destruction, as the late economist Joseph Schumpeter described it so well, is never more visible than in the technology industry. Silicon Valley and its counterpart regions around the globe throb with an energy almost unprecedented in human history, and the people who run those companies rise and fall -- and often rise again -- in a dizzying, semi-violent merry-go-round.

Amid that swelling and ebbing of fortunes is another of the industry's most remarkable qualities -- that is, the combination of competition and cooperation that has been dubbed "co-opetition", where a company can simultaneously be your ally and adversary.

This came to mind last month when I visited the Microsoft campus for the company's announcement of Microsoft.Net, the company's fundamental shift in strategy from the era of Windows to the era of the internet. The net is the computing platform of the future, Microsoft said accurately, though it was less persuasive in the details of how it plans to get from here to there.

As with all such announcements, Microsoft touted its partners in the new regime. There were the usual suspects, but one stood out for its seeming incongruity. A company called Loudcloud, a rapidly rising internet infrastructure startup, was on the team. And who is co-founder and chairman of Loudcloud? Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, which Microsoft so thoroughly destroyed in its first internet jihad.

Unlike some other vanquished Microsoft foes, Andreessen wasn't paraded live before the large audience of reporters and analysts. He and/or Microsoft had enough sense to realise what a spectacle that would have been. Maybe this was a sign of Microsoft's moving toward maturity, an adolescent bully discovering that adulthood is more fun.

I visited Andreessen at the Loudcloud offices the following week and noted the irony of his new alliance with his former tormentor. With a smile, he recited a line from The Godfather. It wasn't personal, he said. It's just business. Loudcloud is a natural ally in the new Microsoft vision of computing. Bygones are bygones, or something like that.

Andreessen did acknowledge some satisfaction in the outcome of Microsoft's antitrust trial -- largely, he said, because the world discovered the kind of tactics Microsoft had used in going after Netscape. But that was then, and this is now.

I can't decide if this is a healthy attitude or something less noble. Maybe it's a little of each. Maybe it's internal co-opetition.

Whatever it is, it's a tech-business trademark. Other values from this industry have been leaking out into the rest of the world. No one should be surprised, as convergence and turmoil arrive on all our doorsteps in the coming years, if this one does too.

Dan Gillmor is a technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. Contact him at dgillmor@sjmerury.com.

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