MSFT 'R' Us

MSFT 'R' Us

MSFT 'R' Us

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
March 29 2000 4:57 PM

MSFT 'R' Us

One of the interesting things that have happened during this bull market is that we have convinced ourselves that America is now a nation of shareholders. When voter turnout is around 45 percent, it's evidence of widespread apathy. But when around 45 percent of the country has at least some money in the stock market, it's evidence that Main Street and Wall Street are on the same side.

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Consider in this light the question that underlies the government's current efforts to rein in the nation's most famous alleged antitrust violator: Is what's bad for Microsoft good for America? The Department of Justice must believe that the answer to this question is yes, or it would not have brought an antitrust action against the company in the first place. An article by John Heilemann in the March issue of Wired contends that Justice's  "trustbuster-in-chief" Joel Klein has tried to convince a bunch of Silicon Valley CEOs to stand up and help convince the public that the answer to the question is yes. This indicates that the government, at least, believes that the public needs convincing. Why?

Although some poll data on this question has floated around, I tend to think that polls are the wrong way of getting at the answer. There is no widespread popular uprising in the streets either for Microsoft or against it, and the vagaries of antitrust law and Microsoft business practices simply have not seized mainstream attention in the same way that, say, the impeachment hearings did. Still, there is at least some water-cooler chatter out there about the fate of Microsoft. But what's interesting about that chatter is what it says about how a nation of shareholders thinks.

Whatever parallels Joel Klein might see between Standard Oil and Microsoft, the companies' public images are shaped by different times. Standard Oil was simply Standard Oil, a big company. Microsoft is not just Microsoft, a big company, but also MSFT, its well-known ticker symbol, or "Mister Softee," the ticker-derived nickname that now has currency far beyond Wall Street. Whatever America knows and however it feels about Microsoft, it products, or antitrust law, it is clear that the shareholders on Main Street love Mister Softee.

And so they should. MSFT, which is a Dow component, has been good to America, as have its colleagues CSCO, INTC, and DELL, among others. So not only do we love them all, we believe in them all, because they have never let us down. Last week, when the rumor first surfaced that Microsoft might settle its differences with the government without a breakup, its stock immediately surged. That is a pretty good indicator of how little the market thinks Microsoft would be hobbled by a settlement, if the government would just get out of the way. When the next day's counter-rumors made it sound as though the government were going to insist on meting out punishment, MSFT lost the prior day's gains. Again that's a good indicator of the market's--of our--opinions of the government's real aims.

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This way of thinking about companies more as stocks than anything else has gained in popularity right alongside the idea that we are all shareholders now. This is why CSCO's--that is, Cisco's--recent move past Microsoft in market capitalization captured such widespread attention. Cisco did not become America's biggest company; it became the biggest stock.

In his Wired article, Heilemann suggested that most of the tech leaders that Klein approached are afraid to stand up to Microsoft in public. I suspect the truth is more subtle than that. For starters, to declare that because of Microsoft we live in a world of stifled innovation just seems like kind of a silly thing for a Silicon Valley leader to say; the world is full of innovation, and even those innovators who tell the most convincing tales of ruthless Microsoft behavior (Jim Clark comes to mind) hardly seem to have been reduced to penury as a result.

Perhaps most important, to complain too loudly about Microsoft seems a bit like declaring yourself a loser who has to make excuses, which is not something those Main Street shareholders smile upon. On some level, we think of ourselves as a people who root for the underdog. But what we really like is the former underdog who has already gone on to win. Or, put more simply, we like a winner. In fact, what's really telling about the Wired article is that when the government was looking for someone to seize the bully pulpit, it turned to the only voices that we seem to take seriously now--a bunch of successful entrepreneurs.

So: Is what's bad for Microsoft good for America? It turns out that this is the wrong question for our times. But what's good for Mister Softee is good for the Dow, and if that's not America, what is?