Editor Winds of Change Roll In

PC technology has stagnated for a decade, but the winds of change are returning. Business computing will be profoundly altered.

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Stagnation. This year's PCs are about the same as last year's, just a little faster. New version of Windows, or Office, or whatever, come out, fatter and slower than last year to use up the performance of those faster PCs. Your 600-MHz Pentium III does pretty much what your 66-MHz 486 did, at about the same speed, but has lots of flashy graphics, sound and animation.

Even the huge Comdex show, long the showcase of PC innovation, has been in decline. There just isn't much new to see there, so why go?

Microsoft has been the primary perpetrator (and beneficiary) of this stagnation, but only because most computer users deeply and sincerely want the Windows monopoly - it gives them exactly what they most desire:

  • Freedom from making decisions - and the fear of a "wrong" decision.
  • Freedom from having to learn something new - it just looks new.
  • Freedom from being different - Windows is "what everyone is doing".
Most computer users don't want innovation, and Microsoft is perfect for them.

So Why is this Changing?

There is always an "outside" where evolution happens on a different track. New ideas learn the weaknesses of the established order and learn to exploit them, because there's money in that. If your idea is successful enough, it might even become the new old regime - very profitable.

This is coming to pass, and it is happening in spades. A few of these changes can be found listed in our article Where is Information Technology Headed.

The anti-trust judgment hinders Microsoft's ability to crush new ideas just as those ideas were about to do the job anyway. Our article Nightmares for Microsoft details a whole bunch of stuff the established order faces. No one may be strong enough to bring it down, but the whole pile is more than enough.

Is This a Good Thing?

Depends on who you ask. To many corporate IT departments, which have standardized completely on Windows and integrated it fully into their business processes, it is a Very Bad Thing. Most PC users would consider it a Bad Thing, for reasons mentioned above. To other corporations with a strong need to reduce costs, and to new companies with a strong need for a competitive edge, it is a Good Thing.

Some point to the fact that under the monopoly, Microsoft, a U.S. company, dominates the software market over the entire world, and say that is a Good Thing. That may be true, but that very domination is causing the U.S. to lose its leadership position in technology - a Bad Thing (unless you don't live in the U.S. of course).

An example: one of the most important new technologies is wireless voice and data communications. Windows doesn't fit in this world, in fact it directly threatens Windows. Since investors in the U.S. were reluctant to put money in anything that might displease Microsoft, Europe is now far ahead in wireless. That war is over before anyone thought to fight.

Microsoft's power has forced other development to move to other countries, because Microsoft could simply sue anyone out of existence over some patent or copyright issue, even if the suit could never win in court. For instance, reverse engineering Microsoft's network protocols (legal under the law) to make compatible products has been moved off-shore for exactly that reason.

Whatever. It's happening regardless of your opinion, so just call it a Good Thing and be done with it. You're going to have to adapt anyway.

What is Microsoft Doing About It?

No one is more aware of all this than Microsoft, and you can expect them to move strongly to protect their interests, and to work hard to exploit new developments to reinforce their position. In doing so, they face some very difficult problems.
  • Microsoft must not gore its own cash cows lest revenue growth stall, yet those very cash cows stand firmly in the way of change.
  • Their anti-trust loss to the Justice Department threatens their ability to crush rivals and take over new markets by leveraging monopolies.
  • Microsoft is very large, unwieldy, and topheavy in middle management.
  • They have a shortage of seasoned executives - most have already left.
  • They are years behind rivals in developing these new technologies.
  • Linux.
On the plus side, Microsoft has very centralized control, essentially one person, Bill Gates. The company will do what he tells it to, just as it did when he told it to reorganize to take over the Internet. The company did just that, in appearance if not in fact.

Bill Gates has declared another reordering of the company entitled ".Net" (pronounced "Dot Net"). I wrote an editorial on .Net back in June when it was announced and that editorial is still pretty much valid.

However you look at it, business computing will be profoundly changed. If Microsoft loses, your computing environment will have to adapt to the new order. If .Net succeeds, your computing environment will have to adapt to the new order, it'll just look more like Windows (but it won't be Windows).

So What About this Linux Thing?

If you read Nightmares for Microsoft you will notice that Linux is mentioned in quite a few of the nightmares. Linux is a major contributor to the changes in process because it offers a number of unique conditions.
  • Anyone can use Linux for any purpose without paying license fees.
  • Anyone can modify Linux for special purposes, because the source code is available and the license allows it.
  • Linux is roughly equivalent to Windows on PCs, offering full hardware support and a graphic desktop environment (in fact, several of them), office suites, Web browsers, and other basic software. Much Linux software is available at little cost.
  • Linux is highly competitive with Windows NT/2000 on the server, but much less expensive. It also adheres more closely to Internet standards.
  • Linux development is progressing very rapidly, and development tools allowing easy porting of established Windows products are nearing release.
  • Linux is modular, so if your device or project doesn't need all of it, you can use just the parts you need. It can easily be fit into devices too small for Windows.
  • Linux code is of very high quality.
  • You can distribute your Linux powered device without paying per-unit royalties.
  • Several large companies (IBM, Sun, Oracle, etc.) seek to promote Linux, because its success stands to cut off Microsoft's revenues, preventing them from moving upwards into datacenter computing.
You can learn a lot more from our article entitled Should Your Business Use Linux?, but whether you use it or not, your business will feel its impact.

©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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