Frankly Speaking: The worst case

What's the worst-case Microsoft scenario? Suppose Microsoft loses its appeal and faces being split up by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. What then? Microsoft's lawyers and executives call any break-up a death sentence, but each piece of a sliced-in-two Microsoft would still be huge compared with most software companies. The real problems - at least for corporate IT shops - will show up if cooler heads don't prevail at Microsoft headquarters. Any extreme reactions from Microsoft could disrupt our ability to get the products we need - and that would send us scrambling for replacements, alternatives and new strategies. We'd better be ready. So what are the worst-case scenarios? And how bad could it get? Suppose . . .

* Bill Gates walks away. Don't laugh - that's what Bill Boeing did when the federal government broke up his Seattle-based high-tech monopoly in 1934. Microsoft (or Microsofts) would survive if Gates cashed in his stock and went home - Gates hasn't been crucial to the company's technology for more than a decade. But until a new leader emerged, confidence in Microsoft would plummet - and so would the stock price.

* Top technical talent deserts Microsoft. Management brain drain is already a problem. But for techies it's another story. Microsoft doesn't depend on a few technical gurus but on mass mobilisation of an army of bright young kids hired straight out of school. As long as there are computer science graduates, Microsoft can get the technical talent it needs.

* Microsoft competes with itself and produces incompatible products. A survivable problem. Today, Microsoft has hundreds of competitors that produce products more compatible with past and current Microsoft products than Microsoft itself.

* Class-action lawsuits drain Microsoft financially so it can no longer develop or buy new technology. It could happen, but more likely Microsoft will settle lawsuits as quickly and cheaply as possible.

* Microsoft violates court-ordered restrictions on its behaviour and gets slapped with even more limits.

* The broken-up Microsoft companies break themselves up further, making them prime acquisition targets.

* An unexpected technology shift renders Microsoft irrelevant. Bad news for Microsoft, catastrophic for the rest of us who would have to absorb that huge technology change.

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