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Talking tech optimism and bashing Microsoft

A group of panelists discussing technology and optimism couldn't resist slighting the giant from Redmond. CEO Marc Benioff at Techonomy conference Techonomy

TUSCON, Ariz.--It was as if the panelists couldn't resist the urge to talk smack about Microsoft. At least founder and CEO Marc Benioff surely couldn't.

Benioff, the firebrand who often bashes his former boss, Oracle's Larry Elison, shared the stage here today at Techonomy 2011 with Intuit founder Scott Cook and management guru Gary Hamel.

The discussion, moderated by longtime venture capitalist Roger McNamee, was billed as the case for optimism, and the gang had plenty to be optimistic about.

Hamel, a hater of corporate bureaucracy, spoke hopefully about the ability of people to challenge power using technology. He even proposed putting Web cams in every legislator's office so that anyone could watch what goes on among politicians, in real-time, unflitered.

Cook observed that musicians and actors have become super wealthy celebs because of past advances in technology, from recording to broadcasting technology, and said that he was hopeful that great educators will reap similar rewards. "I see a day when nonprofit and for-profit teachers become celebrities because they are the best in the world," he said.

And Benioff cheered on the empowered public--from the people who slammed Netflix over its price increases to those of complained about Bank of America's new fees until it dropped them. "Finally, all the things we have been working on [in terms of social communication] is finally impacting the world in a positive ways," said Benioff. "We've wanted this since the '60s."

Then, amid talk about getting big, slow-moving companies to wake up, the talk turned to Microsoft as an example of a beast that continually but unsuccessfully tries to get traction outside its core business of licensed software.

"Microsoft's not a power in this industry," said Benioff. "Nobody cares about Microsoft."

He went on: "Look at the stock price in the last decade. It's as flat as this stage."

(Actually, at around $27 a share, Microsoft is trading a few bucks below were it was a decade ago, but his point stands depending on the exact time comparison.)

Hamel weighed in, singing the praises of the new forces in tech. "All the new comers," he said, "at the forefront of social technology...almost every single one is a startup."

In other words, as big as Facebook has become, it began from scratch and not as a big company trying to become social.

Benioff, who seems to praise Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly as often as he criticizes Oracle, said entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg--those in their 20s--are the ones who are making a difference.

"Look at Facebook and the open graph with social news, social music," said Benifoff. "And we're all awaiting the release of Windows 8? Who cares? Facebook is my operating system. It is the consumer operating system."

Zuckerberg, said Benioff, is a "great leader with a huge vision. That is the case for optimism. It's the youth."

McNamee, a co-founder of Elevation Partners who has old ties to Bill Gates, did praise Microsoft for its $8.5 billion purchase of Skype, saying tha Skype is the one Internet company with powerful enough user engagement "to give Microsoft a shot." But he hedged his praise: "The question is what they will do with it? Will they Windowize and kill it?"

Too bad no one from Microsoft was on the panel.