The Times are a Changin’

Remember when Windows 95 hit the streets? I still chuckle at the frenzy and hysteria. Stores opened at midnight and people waited in line for hours to pay $89 and be the first in their neighborhoods to upgrade. Even serious journalists got caught up in it all: I remember news stories featuring 12-year-old boys wearing fake nerd glasses held together with masking tape. For a brief moment nerds were cool, Bill Gates was a hero, and life was good.

Not quite five years later we see Bill Gates and Microsoft as an arrogant monopoly abusing its power with operating systems to gain strategic advantage in the IT industry. We learned through the anti-trust trial that Microsoft pulled all kinds of shenanigans, including economic bullying, predatory pricing, and attempts to fool the court with bungled demonstrations. Now that the court has made its ruling, Bill Gates and Microsoft vow to fight until the bitter end, or until politics in the United States shift in Microsoft’s favor, which could happen with the upcoming presidential election.

My opinion is Microsoft is a monopoly. It abused its power, and Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer should have settled long ago. Now, instead of strategizing on better ways to build software, Microsoft’s top managers will spend their energy strategizing on ways to try to beat the US Justice Department and the hundreds of private lawsuits sure to follow. No matter what anyone says, fighting the DOJ has to be a major distraction, and this can only be good for Microsoft’s competitors.

There are other trends working against Microsoft, too. Forget the Internet and all the arguments around Java and thin clients for a minute. Forget the fact that Intel and the major system vendors are pouring money and moral support into Linux startups. Microsoft’s fundamental problem is that it accomplished its mission, which was to put a computer loaded with Microsoft software in every home and on every desk. Granted, not every home in the world has a computer yet, but computers are clearly part of today’s mainstream, just like VCRs and TVs.

I’m just a skinny bald guy from Minnesota, and I’m about as far away from our power centers as it gets, but it seems to me that a transition is under way as Microsoft loses its power to dictate standards to the world. Consider how many powerful people are mad at Microsoft for its actions leading to its anti-trust problems. Think about how many people are mad and scared about the recent spate of virus attacks. Then reflect on how the hardware vendors have chafed under Microsoft’s rule these past few years. It seems the more arrogant and cocky Bill Gates gets, the madder the rest of the world will get.

So where do we go from here? Who could fill the vacuum if Microsoft left, and what could they offer? Linux is a viable choice. The problem with Linux is that despite the hype, nobody knows whether the open source model will be viable for the long term, and very few opinion leaders seem willing to take a major risk on Linux. For the immediate future, Linux will continue hosting small Web pages and handling DNS and firewall services.

Sun could put something together, but they don’t seem seriously interested in the desktop.

Another possibility is Compaq OpenVMS. I am admittedly biased because I spent much of my adult life with OpenVMS. Imagine OpenVMS bundled with an Intel platform, selling for a reasonable price, and running applications such as the Microsoft Office suite or Star Office. Sound far-fetched? Consider the fact that OpenVMS' engineering team ported from the VAX architecture to Alpha over a couple years in the early 1990s. Why not an IA-64 port? Also consider that Digital equipment Corp. -- way before the buyout by Compaq -- had an integrated office suite with a WYSIWYG word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool back in 1989 -- 11 years ago.

In 1990, the experts said the days of proprietary operating systems were over. Nobody would lock themselves into a proprietary operating system and no vendor in its right mind would build one. Three years later, Windows NT, a proprietary operating system from Microsoft, hit the streets and made a fortune.

Somebody will emerge from the upcoming transition chaos as a winner. Somebody always does. Does an engineering group in Nashua, N.H., and a management team in Houston have enough guts to try? Will the Linux community show us all a better business model? Will Bill Gates eat humble pie and regain some of the trust he lost? Or will somebody else emerge from obscurity and conquer the industry for the next several years?

I wish I knew the answer. After all these years, the adventure keeps getting better. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@infrasupportetc.com.