Understanding Microsoft

Part 47. Poker Face

You probably know the type -- the guy who can sit at the poker table, staring you down, that same sullen look on his face as the last hand he played. What's he got this time? King-high straight? Full house? Pair of deuces? You can't tell by looking; his poker face is on, and you stand a better chance of guessing the weather a week from now than figuring out what those 5 little cards in his hand are worth. He won't crack a smile at your jokes. He keeps his eyes on the game and smoothly brushes his entire pile of chips to the center of the table, pauses for a second for emphasis, and waits for your response. What's he got this time?

The guy with the best poker face in the world, however, does not inhabit Saturday-night smoke-filled barrooms looking for a penny-ante or a $50 pot. Microsoft is his name, and he holds quite a different set of cards. When Microsoft got ready to place Windows95 out on the table, there first had to be a few rounds of bets placed -- in fact, in the neighborhood of $300 million dollars bet in the form of advertising dollars by Microsoft in the months leading up to its August 1995 release of the product. What effect did this have on the software industry?

Like most big-time gamblers, especially those with a modest set of winnings, it was far easier for the others to wait for a new hand, to back down and not match the bet. Word Perfect backed out on its much-anticipated OS/2 version of its flagship word processor. IBM pulled the plug on a sales campaign that had just begun to turn the corner and overtake Windows in the retail marketplace. Corel threw its lot in with Microsoft as well, and other companies quietly begged off and decided to wait for a more convenient time to play their hands. Microsoft looked around the table, and nobody was calling the bet.

Within just a few weeks after the August product release, the world learned just how good a poker face Microsoft had. They had won a big pot of customers without significant opposition. But their hand had not just been weak; it was downright pitiful. Windows95 was a bust by any technological definition: unstable, slow, inconsistent from machine to machine, failing to be compatible with thousands of mainstream products. Microsoft had pulled off a huge victory holding nothing more than a 7 of DOS, a 4 of Windows, a deuce of Threads, a 4 of Apps, and the King of Diamonds. With a huge splash of publicity, noisemaking, hype, and false promises, Windows95 had proved to be nothing more than a piece of obsolete trash -- a colossal bluff. But it's not the cards that win; it's how the hand is played that counts.

Most recent revision: April 8, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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