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The Rise and Fall of Empires

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July 14, 2009, 2:25 pm

In my spare time of late, I have been reading Paul Starobin's After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age. It's a pretty good look at how the US, like other strong civilizations before it, seems to be waning as a global power and what the world might look like post-America.

As I read through the history and possible outcomes of Pax America, I can not help but wonder how such thinking might apply to another mighty force that seems to have reached the peak of its power and is in the midst of its decline. I speak, of course, of Microsoft.

Let's be clear: this is not going to be a "Linux rox, M$ sux" article. The point is not to slam Microsoft for its past and current decisions, products, or methodologies. Rather, let's hypothesize that Microsoft has indeed reached the peak of its business power, and then speculate on how its decline might affect the world at large.

Such a hypothesis is not too hard to support with evidence. The height of Microsoft's strength appears to be the final release of Windows XP. After that, things seem to have been sliding: Office 2007 migration did not go as fast as Microsoft hoped, and the entire Vista project seems to be a chapter of Redmond's history that they would like to close as fast as possible.

It may not seem fair, especially from an advocate of Linux, to state that recent missteps in Microsoft's history automatically mean its decline. But history bears out that all things must come to an end, and it appears the number of days of Microsoft has overlord of all things IT seem to be shorter in coming than have passed. If anything, I think even the staunchest Microsoft advocate would have to at least agree with me, in these days of financial turmoil, that "change or die" seems to be the order of the day.

Then, too, are the outside elements that are contributing to the decline of Microsoft. The rise of mobile devices as a platform is a challenge Redmond has yet to properly respond, while Moblin and Android increase their profiles unabated. Google has the majority of the search market now, and is now reaching into Microsoft's OS territory, alongside Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE. Social networking is filled with hundreds of applications (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and very few of them written for anything other than the ubiquitous web platform. Even the dominance of Internet Explorer is challenged by Firefox.

None of this is anything new to followers of IT--indeed, some of these signs have been a long time in coming. And the rise of all of these elements may give us some clues as to what a post-Microsoft world might look like.

It should be emphasized that a post-Microsoft world is not a world without Microsoft--I don't seriously think the company will ever vanish from the face of the Earth. History bears this out, as well: a post-British Empire world still has a Great Britain, a nation that now plays a new role in world politics than it used to.

So, too, will Microsoft have a role to play in a post-Microsoft IT world. The question is, what will that role be?

Search "post-Microsoft world" on the Internet and you will see quite a few pundits have already tackled this topic, but upon closer examination these articles look like wishful thinking after some seemingly cataclysmic event in Microsoft's history, such as Bill Gates' retirement, or when the company was ruled a monopoly by US courts in 2000. Not very many of them examined what the IT world would look like--they were just eager to see the world's largest software company go away.

Last January, Devin Coldewey made a good run at it, though, on CrunchGear. In that article, Coldewey speculated that there will be two directions Microsoft can go from here: fragmentation or modularization.

"Fragmentation is what we see now, what we’ve been seeing for some time. Different OSes for different devices, different programs, different code bases, all with allowances for working with one another but not designed for it. We could continue down that path, but the number of devices and the variety of their needs are beginning to multiply more quickly than we can write for them. Viz. the plethora of mobiles and their disparate, semi-related OSes, either obscuring or overstating the capabilities of the hardware," Coldewey wrote.

This path of utter chaos seems unworkable to Coldewey, and I would agree. Instead, it seems more likely that the world of IT will trend towards what he calls "modularization," where individual software components would be stuck together to form the optimum tool for the user. His analogy is LEGOs, and it works well enough. I tend to doubt that things will be that neat and tidy for a while.

Instead, I think the conversion to a system of "ala carte" IT services will be fraught with progress and setbacks. After all, like other pax structures before it, Microsoft will try very hard to retain its former glory, and it may not always go quietly. Other factors, such as the strength and ability of other players to fill in the gaps Microsoft leaves behind, will play a factor.

Naturally, I believe Linux will be one of the big players that can step into a power vacuum left behind by a Microsoft retreat. It's own modularized structure makes it well-suited to fill in where Windows and other tools once tread. The continued corporate interest in Linux-based tools seems to bear this theory out.

There's a number of ways the end of a Pax Microsoft can play out--it looks like interesting times are indeed ahead.

 

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