Commentary

Microsoft's Utility Quiets a Chronic Complainer


I run my own business, so naturally I complain a lot. I complain when customers pay me late and suppliers don't deliver on time. I complain about high taxes, red tape, and slow drivers.

Readers have also seen me complain about Microsoft (MSFT). My company is a partner, and we use a lot of its products. I kvetched when Windows 7 came out, and then again six months later. And I carped when Microsoft discontinued its Office Accounting software.

It's not all sour grapes, though. Despite the fact that Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), and lots of other tech companies have been getting better notices from the press, the small business landscape would be much bleaker without Microsoft. Kind of like a world without Justin Bieber.

We all know Windows' historical shortcomings: the freezes, the crashes, the rebooting, those Jerry Seinfeld-Bill Gates commercials. But without Windows running their PCs, most of the small companies I know, including my own, wouldn't be as profitable and efficient. Just about every business application runs on Windows, and the uniformity has made it cheaper and easier for tech vendors to write programs for companies like mine.

Dependability Outside the Cloud

Let's look at some of Microsoft's other important products. Without the Office productivity suite, many small businesses would be working with less peace of mind. Cloud computing is a phenomenon that all tech companies need to respond to, just as Office 2010 will.But software as a service isn't right for every scenario, and many businesses don't trust cloud applications like Google Docs to hold their precious data. They also like to work offline.

Everywhere I go, Microsoft Office is still the king of the productivity category. Nearly everyone working in an office has been raised on Microsoft Word and Excel, and it's easier to send and receive Office files when you know the person on the other end has the same application.

What would happen if there was no SQL Server? That's the Microsoft database used to store data for just about every major business application I know of. It's fast, reliable, and stable. Sure, there are alternatives. But for small companies, Oracle's (ORCL) database, for example, is too expensive.

In addition to making familiar, useful, and affordable products, Microsoft boasts thousands of resellers and service partners that help support and enhance its software. It may not boast "geniuses" like Apple staffs in its stores, but all technology users need support, even with products from Apple and Google. Microsoft's broad partner channel helps my company use its technology a lot more effectively.

A Familiar Sight in Foreign Lands

You know what else I like about Microsoft? When I travel overseas to visit customers and partners, I see the same familiar applications winking at me over their employees' shoulders. It makes me feel at home, like seeing a McDonald's (MCD) on the Champs-Élysées. Microsoft's software has been translated into dozens of languages and Windows is used wherever I go. It makes things a bit easier when I'm doing business in other countries.

Microsoft's acquisitions have paid dividends for small companies, too. Its 2008 acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer helps users quickly find files on their networks. The same year, Microsoft bought DATAllegro, which helps customers store and analyze massive amounts of data.

Some investments Microsoft has made have yielded indirect benefits, too. When things were rough for Apple in 1997, Microsoft stepped in with a $150 million investment that helped stabilize the company. The same year, Microsoft invested $1 billion in Comcast (CMCSA), helping the cable firm turn into the giant it is today. In some small way, Microsoft's money helped pave the way for the iPhones and broadband connections my company uses now.

I like to complain, O.K.? I've taken Microsoft to task for things that annoy me, like elements of Windows 7's user interface that get in my way. But I won't complain about Microsoft's success. When it succeeds, I do, too.

Gene_marks
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.

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