tl;dr — Microsoft doomed; I don’t care about their new logo; Apple will be our new corporate masters
I was reading the Hacker News a couple of weeks back and someone had posted a story from the Seattle Times that said that Microsoft had gained a new logo for the first time since 1987. "Who the hell cares?" I wondered, and it was beautiful to think of Microsoft’s growing irrelevance. Microsoft are becoming increasing less important as a force in the world of tech and indeed as a company.
I may have been being a bit harsh. It happens. Microsoft have been written off before — by the "Open Source" people for having an inevitably doomed closed business model; by the Apple Fanbois for their horrendous bad taste and their bland corporate image. But here we are in 2012 and they are still around. Nonfree and bland as ever. As their new logo in dull helvetic-ish sans serif attests. Working to make your computer work for them and with very little to offer anybody that anybody actually wants — "Jeeesus, they’ve changed Excel again? What the fuck?".
So why does Microsoft still exist? Well, a number of reasons. There are rather a lot of business desktops kicking around. The majority of the interwebs (still the majority of botnets too, of course) uses Windows. Microsoft dominance in the workplace is total, at least in the English speaking world. Part of the monopoly is gained from the old OEM tie-in whereby it is near-enough impossible to buy a new PC without Windows pre-installed. Microsoft’s strategey of child-indoctrination, whereby education in computer science has been reduced to education in using Word to write letters to hypothetical prospective employers — and employers are extremely hypothetical these days — surely helps cement their domination of our workplaces. The invention of professional qualifications like MCSE has created an army of advocates, whose careers are tied in to the continued usage of Redmond’s outpourings.
So, what might happen to change things? Its clear that workplaces will continue to be based around some sort of desktop computer for a while. But with increasing migration to the cloud, our desktops are becoming more and more like terminals to a centralized 70s-style mainframe. CIOs are already noticing that paying a few hundred quid for terminal software is not a great investment. As connection speeds get faster and the infrastructure more workable workplaces will virtualize their infrastructure. Redmond’s outings into the SAAS world have been underwhelming and late so far.
Then there is, of course, the "death of the desktop" much discussed in recent times. The growth areas of computing are mobile and tablet. Both areas where Microsoft have yet to attain anything resembling a toehold. Maybe they will. But I wouldn’t hold your breath. Android and Apple’s iOS look like they have established a duopoly with occasional trivial interference from BBN and MS. As the desktop PC becomes a niche product, Microsoft will have less and less of a grip on OEMs who make increasing amounts of money from other devices. At some point Dell or HP will realize that they can salvage a little of their falling margins by ghosting a custom Ubuntu onto their machines and saving the royaties. Microsoft need the advantage so much that I can even imagine them paying OEMs to install their software one day.
Recent rhetoric about reintroducing computer lessons that don’t totally suck seems positive. If groups like Computing at School get their way we might see a whole generation of kids who understand code rather than understanding the correct use of software products. This bodes ill for all established proprietary software houses and is therefore greatly to be encouraged.
I have to admit now that I am not as concerned with precipitating Microsoft’s demise or as joyful at the porspect of it as once I was. Mainly because of the emergence of that other force in computing — Apple. Apple have come back from the dead to bring us exactly the sort of monopoly that Microsoft were too slow to build for themselves. Let’s look at the threats that I have enumerated to Microsoft in the context of Apple. OEMs? They are the OEM. Kids doing tech? Lots of developers seem to be using OSX because it works well and they don’t anticipate future treachery. Mobile? They are one part of the duopoly. Tablets? Well, duh? Cloud? Well, once Amazon and Google are eliminated, who knows?
And GNU/Linux? Will we see "Linux on the desktop" in 2012 or 2013? Maybe we will. But it probably doesn’t matter any more. We are entering a new mainframe age with Apple and Andoid terminals that talk to GNU/Linux servers acting like mainframes. There may be an Ubuntu niche, just as there will be a Microsoft niche but the future is looking more centralized and less peer-to-peer and certainly it doesn't look like it will be