I once promised a friend that I would avoid allusions to baseball in TidBITS, but it’s going to be hard to resist the comparison to the free agent market in this one, and if you can’t grow ’em yourself, buy ’em. Microsoft just announced that it will be purchasing Fox Software for a reported sum of $173 million dollars. Fox Software has a well-earned reputation for solid database products including FoxBASE+/Mac and FoxPro for DOS, and it’s quite obvious that Microsoft wants an immediate database product since it has been unable to produce a decent one for a number of years now, either on the high end or the low end (ever used Microsoft File? I hope not.).
Microsoft claims that it will continue with its Cirrus database project, which has not been announced or discussed in any detail yet. It’s safe to assume that Cirrus will not compete with Fox’s products and that it won’t be available for some time. I’ve heard nothing about a replacement for File, partly because Microsoft Works, as old and decrepit as it is, (ooh, people aren’t going to like that statement :-)) can do much of what is needed from a simple flat file database with the Microsoft name on it.
So what’s this acquisition mean? Lots. There have been two main gaps in the Microsoft application suite for some time now, database and graphics. Microsoft still has no graphics package to speak of, but Fox will bring powerful relational databases on both the Mac and DOS platforms to Microsoft. Suddenly Claris has a big competitor because even though FileMaker Pro isn’t as complicated (or powerful) as FoxBASE, a lot of people will buy the Microsoft FoxBASE just because. After all, no one was ever fired for buying Microsoft. IBM is another story these days. ACIUS must not be terribly happy either, since 4th Dimension suddenly has a competitor with Mr. Bill’s money behind it, and although installed base is extremely important, marketing rules the world. Odesta, by the way, is no more, and Double Helix, a quirky but fun and powerful relational database has been taken over by another company. Many of the original employees were staying on last we heard, so we have high hopes for Double Helix’s continued success. Finally, there’s Blyth, with Omnis on both the Mac and Windows, perhaps the most direct cross-platform competition for FoxBASE.
Those rivalries aside, I think it’s clear that the Mac version of FoxBASE is merely a condiment, and the main course is FoxPro for DOS (and the future FoxPro for Windows). Perhaps the most notable acquisition prior to this one was when Borland bought up Ashton-Tate and added dBASE and its massive installed base to supplement Borland’s own technically impressive Paradox. With that move, Borland now owns 75% of the PC database market, and Microsoft hates to see Borland doing so well in that arena. What better way to suddenly become a force in the database market than buying Fox, since Fox has a good set of products currently, good people working on them, and good technology that can be used elsewhere in Microsoft products. And you too could have all that if you had $173 million lying around.
One nasty point which may just have become moot is the lawsuit filed by Ashton-Tate charging Fox with various violations of Ashton-Tate copyrights. If I remember correctly, there was a bit of look and feel in that suit as well, but I would hope that Borland and Microsoft will let the suit go away naturally, if such a thing is possible, and compete head to head in the marketplace.
I don’t have a definite opinion whether this acquisition is good or bad because it depends on your point of view. If you like Microsoft, you’ll probably like the deal because it patches a gaping hole in Microsoft’s suite of products. If you’re fan of other companies or, like me, are against the concept of large companies buying up smaller companies all the time, then you probably won’t be quite so pleased. I dislike the concept of market domination because, as happened with Microsoft Works, the level of technology stagnates without competition. Now that Claris and Beagle Bros. and Symantec all have integrated packages out on the market, Microsoft has to scramble to clean up Works. Even the promised new version won’t compete technologically with the newcomers, although current Works users will be happy for a real upgrade after so long.