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Commentary: Does Microsoft matter anymore?

Amid a landslide of tech earnings Tuesday night, it wasn't hard to notice that Microsoft has lost its luster. Given the glut of earnings conference calls last night, an investor had to make some choices, and Microsoft probably lost out.

A quirk in this latest earnings season had Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) reporting earnings and hosting a conference call at the same time as Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), Commerce One (Nasdaq: CMRC), i2 (Nasdaq: ITWO), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), DoubleClick (Nasdaq: DCLK) and RealNetworks (Nasdaq: RNWK), to name a few.

With that lineup and the fact you can't be on two calls at once, Wall Street watchers had to rate Microsoft in terms of its technological edge and entertainment factor. Do you listen to Microsoft's slowing revenue growth outlook, with the usual caution thrown in? Or do you pay attention to other tech companies? Simply put, does Microsoft matter anymore?

Those questions wouldn't have been asked just a few quarters ago. Missing a Microsoft earnings call would have been heresy. If you missed last night's conference call, you didn't miss a lot. Here's the recap: Earnings were better than expected, growth was sluggish, and Windows 2000 will save the day -- eventually. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Microsoft these days is a lot like network television -- it looks a lot less appealing when there are a lot of choices.

Now Microsoft is on the back burner because it's not driving the tech sector as much as it used to. It remains an important player, but it's not the star. Product delays and a pesky antitrust trial have Microsoft playing catch-up on many fronts. Sure Windows 2000 may be the next big thing -- and sales should ramp up shortly -- but Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) and Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT) are powering much of the Internet these days.

As for business-to-business software, your time would have been better spent listening to Commerce One and i2 last night. Both companies are software up-and-comers. Both delivered upside surprises and gave a nice look into the B2B sector.

Like Ariba (Nasdaq: ARBA), these next-generation software providers are more fun to watch and provide investors with better growth possibilities.

Microsoft has made a few B2B announcements, but at this point Microsoft is a non-player in terms of mind and market share. Oracle has refashioned itself as a one-stop B2B shop in an attempt to become the next Microsoft of B2B. So far it's working.

You could listen to Microsoft drone on about its .NET strategy, but it appears to be a hosting strategy a little behind the curve. In many respects, .NET could be called .Vaporware. Microsoft is pursuing a strategy that's already applied by a host of others. Microsoft is retrofitting its tools, applications and operating systems so it can sell software as services. While Microsoft retrofits for two years, other companies are there today.

As for guidance about the Internet, you would have been much better off tuning into the DoubleClick and RealNetworks financials. Sure, Microsoft claims to be the largest Web network in the world, but who believes them without an independent source verifying the data?

DoubleClick topped estimates and was relatively bullish despite what appears to be an online advertising slowdown. Online advertising was topic 1,000 on Microsoft's list last night. To no one's surprise, time ran out on the topic.

RealNetworks provided a window into broadband growth and appears to be the closest thing to a streaming media standard. Microsoft's Media Player is a bit of an afterthought.

And come to think of it, so is Microsoft.TDAIN


• Microsoft tops estimates, sees slow growth ahead
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