Joining the battle for the Browser

Welcome back and Happy New year everyone.  I missed my blogging efforts over the holidays so here is the first release of 2010.

It was 1997 and I had been in my job as a channel sales rep for about 6 months when I was offered an interesting opportunity. My direct boss was Cindy Ranz, who was employee number 16 at Microsoft. but it was her peer Jeff Browne who would offer me up a chance to join an incubation team of telesales reps.   A group known as the Internet Customer Unit (ICU) had been formed about a year earlier and was led by Cameron Myrvold (brother of the founder of Microsoft research Nathan).  As was noted at the MGX in Montreal all things were focused on competing against Netscape.  The issue around the internet was Microsoft really did not know a whole lot about the makeup of the internet community.  One thing that was apparent was that everyone and their mother could start their own Internet Service Provider (ISP) business.  The decision was made by ICU to purchase a list of ISP’s for the US and Canada and have a small group of Telesales reps call down on them and basically find out what makes them tick.  I was one of the reps selected.  It would launch one of the funnest times I ever had in my career.

The team that was selected would reunite me with two of my former teammates from my days in DST; Steve Bissell and Ken Fiore.  Our manager was a bright young woman named Greta George. We were given lists of ISP’s, broken out by region – I had Central and Canada.  Ken had the East and Steve got the West.  There were many ISP’s, I think my list was over 1000.  Like any new industry there were a lot of start-ups. Beyond calling down on these ISP’s and doing intelligence gathering  we had products to promote and sell.  For the browser we had the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) and the Microsoft Commercial Internet System (MCIS).

The IEAK was a pretty simple tool.  Microsoft had decided with its browser that we would allow ISP’s to customize the browser with really just two things:

  1. The ISP could set the start-up page (Netscape defaulted to their website)
  2. The ISP could put their logo in the browser

The MCIS product was a suite of 8 different server products.  I am going to forgo a detailed description of what they did but simply say that the problem Microsoft had at the time with our server products is that none were designed withe the internet in mind.  One product in the suite was an Internet Mail server, the reason we had this product in MCIS was simple.  Microsoft’s Exchange Server could not scale to support the internet nor was it architected to support the internet.  I think the previous point highlights a significant challenge then and moving forward for a company the size of Microsoft. When change happens in technology it happens quickly and companies are faced with a challenge to start with a new product or try to nut and bolt together what you already have.

We started our jobs and were basically thrown on the phones to start calling and selling.  What quickly became apparent was that the browser was not really that interesting, but something else…Open Source.  We quickly learned as a team a whole new list of words and acronyms that we had not been exposed to before,  At the time DSL and cable modems were just being discussed in the industry for eth most part it was modem banks and ISDN lines (56k).  Every ISP had a modem back to receive all the incoming calls.  When a user was on the internet their phone was busy.  the technology these ISP’s used was cheap as in free.  They used things like Linux as the OS  or they used one of two flavors BSDi or Free BSD.  The web server was almost always Apache.  The email was send mail.  For the most part all these things were free stuff you down loaded off the internet.  Another thing is these systems tended to be one-dimensional.  To a Microsoft person it was a question of how could this be?  We were used to multi-tasking and running lots of applications at once.  These systems seemed stupid.  But they did offer one thing: they were secure and stable.  A lot of the  calls were interesting as the Open Source community tended to talk to us like we were yesterday’s news. Initially it was a defensive posture we took (Steve, Ken and I).  How dare they talk to Microsoft in such a condescending manner?  Do they not know who we are?  We invented the software industry.  What is this communist plot to create a paradise for the software community by sharing valuable IP?  We are the definition of the capitalist dream, Open Source still believes the Berlin Wall is standing.  Looking back Microsoft as a company, was still in its very, very arrogant phase.  When you are winning every battle it is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a necessary attribute to maintain success.  However looking at things from the other side we can look back to Sun Tzu and quote “When confronted by superior numbers it is wise to change the battle field”.  In the packaged software business you were not going to beat Microsoft, but this idea of free stuff was new and could impact Microsoft’s margins.  At this point though Ken, Steve and I were on the cutting edge.  The vast majority of people at Microsoft did not know what was happening on the internet. When you are in the edge in technology you ware in one of the most exciting places in all of business.

I will add here there are a few things I noticed early on I did not like about the internet.  This idea of anonymous I did not like.  I heard people on McNeil – Lehrer, hype it as great.  When I see what people sa and on the internet behind their secret identity it strikes me as weak and cowardly.  In many cases they are doing illegal activities, but in others they just want degrade and crucify people in a way they are simply too scared to do in person.  If you have an opinion stand behind it.

A second thing was in calling these ISP’s a lot of them were dealing with pornography.  This to me just illustrates that the adult industry will always be on the cutting edge of these types of changes in video distribution.  As the writer Paul Theroux recounts in his travel books when talking about pornography, “Much of it is disgusting, but they do it because there is a market for it”.  It’s legal and it’s capitalism.  At 28.8k modem speeds some people must really have wanted the content.

During this time we would forge relationships and travel to meet customers.  This would really launch my career on planes.  We had a lot of visibility in the company, which would cause Greta great stress.  People were very interested to hear what we knew.  Greta and I would talk a lot in her office enduring this time.  She was having to pull spreadsheets together and Powerpoint to discuss the data we were collecting.  I think a lot of that stress was brought on by the fact that an even though we were capturing  a lot if data I am not sure how good it was and it required a lot of assumptions to be made.  Greta then would present to people like she knew, something I don’t think she was comfortable with.  Even in today’s Microsoft with all the date being collected  it still requires a lot of assumptions to be made.  Greta was just ahead of her time.

As a team we had fun.  We went on a golf outing at Mount Si.  I am not a  golfer so take this opinion with a grain of salt.  I do not think the golf course is the most challenging course in Washington, however on a sunny day it really is beautiful to stand in the shadow of that mountain and enjoy golf and beers with great co-workers.  We went out to eat at Chandlers Crab House , very good sea food.  For those making a trip to Seattle I recommend.  Especially during Copper River salmon season  I got  one of the best reviews in my career and one of the largest raises. My career was moving forward I was happy at home with my wife and new house.   Life was very good at Microsoft.

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