One of them seems to be losing steam while the other may emerge as the 'ruler of the world'
By Mr Lee Han Shih, Guest Contributor
If you are offered a job with Microsoft five years ago, would you take it? If you are offered the same job now, would you?
Five years ago the answer is definitely yes. In 2001, Microsoft was king of the heap. It controlled 95 per cent of the personal computer market with its Windows operating system and its Office suites of software. Everyone, except the tiny minority who stuck to Apple, used Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. Microsoft was so dominant that its chairman Bill Gates had (and still is, for that matter), the richest man in the world. The company itself had US$30 billion in cash, enough money to buy up any young challenger and crush oppositions. Working for Microsoft then was like taking a ride into the future on a first class ticket. You get the exposure, the best of the goodies the Internet could offer, and you had immense job security. After all, how could Microsoft fail?
New Gorilla on the Scene
Fast forward to 2006. Bill Gates, as I have mentioned before, is still the richest man on earth. But that is about the only thing that has remained unchanged. Everything else is different. The rules have all been rewritten. Microsoft itself looks old and tired. And there is a new 300 pound gorilla in the scene, big enough, brash enough and bold enough to mount a credible challenge to The Empire of Bill Gates. It is called Google.
In 2001, Google was barely two years old. It had about 180 employees. It had a search engine that was interesting, and rather useful. It was talking to Yahoo! and others to lease out its engine for a small fee. The two young men who founded Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, now known universally as "The Google Guys", were making some money. But that was about it. No one could think of a good business model to make a lot of money out of it. Google seemed destined to carry on its life as an adjunct of a portal. Its biggest break would be to sell out to Yahoo! or Microsoft.
Today, of course, Google rules the world. Well, not exactly, but it is getting there, not slowly and steadily, the way Microsoft was inching up its market share year by year with absolute control but rapidly and in so many unexpected directions that leave observers gasping for breath.
Replacing Windows and Office
Today Google offers more than search. It has online shopping (Froogle), mapping (Google World), and many others. It is in the process of digitizing all the books in the world and offering them free on the net. It is into search on mobile phones. And in a blow that hits Bill Gates right at the solar plexus, it is offering free software (Google Pack) that would one day replace Windows and Office.
Suddenly Microsoft is on the defensive. And it is not only reeling from the blows by Google, it is also losing ground, badly, in the digital entertainment arena to an enemy once left for dead - Apple.
I don't need to talk about iPod here. Chances are every second person reading this column either owns an iPod or are thinking of getting one. You know better than I how Apple now rules the digital music scene. And it is on its way to ruling the digital video scene as well. Imagine watching new footages of The Incredible on your handheld.
Why do I spend time talking about Microsoft, Google and Apple? It is because there is a great lesson there, for any of you looking for a job.
In many ways Microsoft is like a Singapore company, especially one of the GLCs, or government-linked companies. It is big, it is dominant, and it looks invincible, in its home market. If you are looking for a job, it looks like the perfect choice as an employer.
Listen or Be Swamped
Yet in just a few years, all the weaknesses of Microsoft have been exposed. Its size and its dominance have worked to its disadvantage. It is so big that it reacts slowly. It is so dominant that it fails to see vital areas where it is being challenged. And it is so established (Microsoft is 31 this year, late middle age as far as tech firms are concerned), and so comfortable that it has forgotten the most important rule in business: If you do not listen to the market, you are likely to be swamped by it.
The problem of Microsoft is that it thinks it is the market. It had the impression that consumers, meaning PC users, had little choice but to take what it dished out. Would you buy a Windows upgrade? Of course. After all, what alternatives do you have if you want to run the latest software, which are designed to run with the latest upgrades? Do you use Explorer? Duh. Do you present with PowerPoint? Double Duh.
The relationship between Microsoft and its customers had been a one-way street for so long that the people in the biggest software company in the world had forgotten how to listen to customers. They also ignored complaints and suggestions from millions and millions of computer users. As a result, they left themselves vulnerable to new challenges from Google and Apple - not because they did not realise the enemies are out there, but simply because they treated them as mere nuisance that would, in the course of time, be swept under the carpet by Microsoft's unstoppable progress.
Where goes Microsoft, goes a lot of Singapore companies. They are king in their home turf for so long that most do not react well to challenges, especially if these come from unexpected sources.
And if the lesson of Microsoft, Google and Apple tells us anything, it is that challenges in the 21st century are unexpected. Who would have thought that a mere search engine could upset Microsoft? Yet it does, because Page and Brin have realised that information has become the most valuable commodity in the world, and who controls it, controls the world.
And who would have thought iPod, yet another wannabe MP3 player, could bring about so much changes in our lifestyle? (Certainly not Bill Gates, who probably doesn't listen to music.) If there is one scene that really defines the "In" tech world of 2005, it is the picture of Steve Jobs, standing in front of thousands of Mac fanatics, slowly withdrawing the iPod Nano from his back pocket. More than anything else, the Nano - a product too cool to fail - marked the failure of Microsoft in the digital entertainment industry.
Singapore is a strange place. It is an international business centre. It has one of the busiest ports in the world. Yet it is also very isolated. For 40 years or more, we are sheltered from the challenges of the outside world. The not-so-funny joke among local businessmen is that Singapore has 3Cs: MNC, the multinational corporations; the GLCs; and the PLCs, the poor little (local) companies.
The MNCs bring in the foreign investment and create jobs. The GLCs grow by servicing the MNCs and servicing the needs of a booming economy. And the PLCs survive whatever way they can.
An exaggeration, but there are much truth in it. For a generation, Singapore prospered by being a subcontractor, or an outpost of the MNCs. We have done a superb job in that. But times have changed. MNCs are going to China, India and Vietnam. And we finally have to face up to the challenges in the world. It is a difficult process. Like Microsoft, companies that are used to having their way are not known for being nimble and reacting fast. Unlike Microsoft, which is too big to fail, many Singapore companies may not survive the change. Remember this when the time comes to choosing your job: Do not be fixated with the size of the employer as size itself may be a disadvantage. Choose an employer that has the ability to react to changes, and ride along with it. Good luck.