South to the Future

E-tailers Surf the Anti-Microsoft Wave

June 14, 2000
SEATTLE -- Ask Robert Peabody, founder of the online shopping service, what he was doing two weeks ago, and he laments, "We were calling our lawyers. It was quitting time." But in less time than it took for to file for bankruptcy, the ailing e-tailer appears to be back on the road to success -- although now, that road leads toward Microsoft.

"We're capitalizing on our strengths," says an energetic if bedraggled Peabody, whose company once sought to become the leading vendor of toy batteries, breath mints, and other inexpensive consumer goods. "And our main strength is our e-mail software."

E-mail software from an e-tailer? Don't be surprised. Confronted with staggering losses and uninterested investors, a host of e-tailers are now repositioning themselves to benefit from the Microsoft breakup. How? By positioning them- selves as competitors of the dismembered juggernaut.

In a sign of just how difficult it has been for e-tailers to capture the attentions of venture capitalists, within hours of Judge Jackson's verdict, nearly a dozen e-commerce start-ups announced plans to release software tools ranging from word processing applications to Linux-based operating systems for PCs. Even if most of these products fail at the consumer level, e-tailers consider these revamped business plans their best shot at wooing a new pool of investors who for years have shied away from any market in which Microsoft already had a stake.

"It's a feeding frenzy," says Kari Becher, a senior analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York. "While the e-tailer tap is being shut off, the post-Microsoft one is ready to burst." Adds Becher, "Right now it appears as if all you need to get your fill is a cup."

For the would-be beneficiaries of this latest investment rally, that cup is likely to be a variant of already-existing Microsoft products such as the e-mail tool Outlook, the word-processing program Word, or the spreadsheet application Excel.

Consider the case of, one of dozens of Internet start-ups that specialize in electronic invitations and greeting cards. Eager to transform itself into a contender in the emerging post-Windows market, is set to release its own combined e-mail and personal planning software. The program will run on both the Windows and Linux platforms, will cost $50, and will compete with more than a dozen already established products.

Nevertheless, software guru Matt Isse is confident that his company's timing alone will pave the road to future success. "What we have is the first Internet-to-desktop software migration in the industry," asserts Isse. "We're blazing the trail."

Although that distinction would not be possible without Sun Microsystem's Java system, does at least have some experience with the logistics of planning and e-mail communications. But not all of the new offerings have even that much in their favor. For example,, an online pet grooming portal, is developing what it calls K9OS, an operating system for "dogs and their people."

"When Microsoft had a monopoly, there was no way a company like ours could bring an operating system to market," explains DoggieDOS Chief Human Officer Vincent Johns. "This is the heyday for people who want to design their lives around their dogs. So why not their desktops as well?"

K9OS runs on top of PC DOS and features options like a fire hydrant instead of a recycle bin and a fetch function in place of "find." But the OS's most compelling feature is its companion e-mail program, which lets owners zap text-to-voice messages to their pets via a speakerphone or answering machine in the home.

Will the VCs bite? According to Johns he's talking to three different funds, even though the first line of code is yet to be written. Explains Becher, "Money doesn't seem to fall out of the Web economy; it just churns."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental.

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