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Inside the IBM-Microsoft spin zone

The Stencil Group co-founder Bill Robins gives the conspiracy theorist view of why Bill Gates shared a stage with an IBM executive to talk up Web services standards.

    Gates Mills, Ohio, is an actual town--population 2,508. Some "Microsoft is evil" conspiracy theorists believe that in this town resides the software world's version of "The Truman Show."

    They say Gates Mills is a small laboratory for Microsoft and IBM's insidious schemes--world domination via fiat.

    As a result, the emerging proxy of Gates Mills is a place where normal folks run their lives on emerging "standards" that are focused on distributed computing. I have the utmost respect for Microsoft and believe that it has some of the world's most talented people. However, an event last month in New York City gave plenty of fodder for those who might not.

    Bill Gates and Steve Mills, who runs IBM's software business, demonstrated progress on Web services standards. For the first time in 12 years (gasp!), Gates shared a stage with an IBM executive. He also shared the stage with a Linux box. What was so exciting that these two powerful men and the world's hippest operating system got on stage together? They ran a demo.

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    And analysts loved it. "It's a milestone," one said. "IBM's Steve Mills and Microsoft's Bill Gates pledged allegiance to software standards. Is their commitment to Web services standards real? Yes. In fact, you can bet your career on it," another stated. "Nobody has ever showed it's hook up anything together without having to recode everything--that will be totally amazing."

    I beg to differ.

    To me, the event seemed more like passing the Grand Canyon on your right from 30,000 feet than a major "milestone" event for the industry. But it carried significance because Microsoft is the master of realpolitik.

    If the company felt comfortable with Gates taking front and center to say "mission-critical adoption" is happening, this bodes well for all from a market development standpoint. Gates' table pounding deserves the attention of information technology and business execs throughout the Fortune 1000; Chairman Gates moves markets.

    It is so much more interesting to speculate, however, on conspiracy theories. No press release on the Microsoft site?

    It strikes me that this (non-event) event first and foremost was targeted at pushing 2004 budgets over the edge.
    That makes one think that the whole thing was thrown together rather quickly. Why Bill Gates and Steve Mills? Were their companies' product managers busy that day?

    Microsoft's Steven VanRoekel, director of Web services at Microsoft, responded to any such theories, saying, "We recognize that customers are faced with the need to tie their multivendor systems together, and Microsoft, IBM and our industry partners are committed to addressing this problem by delivering interoperability through Web services."

    What were the PR machines' goals? Here are five theories (in order of least to most probable):

    Spite for Sun
    Coincidentally (or not), Sun was running its annual customer event simultaneously. It was the first time Sun dedicated the show to software. Silicon Valley insiders like to say Sun is not a software company, but the company is fighting hard to beat back this notion.

    Who needs the United Nations?
    If the United States does not need U.N. approval to declare war, Microsoft and IBM may not need the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, the World Wide Web Consortium or even the Web Services Interoperability Organization to talk up Web services standards--that's at least what conspiracy theorists think.

    Standards committees definitively have warts. I applaud the work these companies do and do not question their parallel path to developing standards. However, I am confused. Why this demo? Why here? Why now? And most importantly of all, why roll out the heavy hitters?

    Pre-emptive strike
    Perhaps this event was accelerated to beat someone else's demonstration that was scheduled to happen later in the fall. In this case, maybe first-mover advantage still plays a predominant role, but time will tell if Larry Ellison and Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's software chief, join a Windows 2003 server on stage.

    Connect with developers
    Microsoft has always been a great development marketing organization. Recently, the Java and open-source communities have outflanked Microsoft, often in the pursuit of the higher-end developers. Was this an attempt to rebuff the Java community, IBM notwithstanding?

    Doth the lady protest too much?
    During this event, Gates and Mills talked a big game about mission-critical activity that's happening in the Web services realm. Perhaps in Trumanville and in Gates Mills this statement is true today. Back on planet Earth, however, market uptake is not nearly as wide or deep as we would all like. But the tea leaves suggest that Microsoft is doing what it can to change that in 2004.

    It strikes me that this (non-event) event first and foremost was targeted at pushing 2004 budgets over the edge. If Microsoft events in October such as the Professional Developers Conference and the Office 2003 release are to serve as bottom-up market catalysts, Gates' demo was the top-down fiat to complement the more organic market development work.

    If your company was debating whether to create a specific Web services line item--be it development, management or infrastructure--the Sept. 17 event was crafted for you. "We're not declaring victory, but we're showing people the goal line," Mills said.

    When IBM and Microsoft get people to the goal line, that will be one hell of a demo.