Let's Get This Straight:Windows on the wane?

Open source and information appliances squeeze the PC from both sides.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published November 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Microsoft lost a crucial round in that other Microsoft trial Tuesday, the Java lawsuit, when a Federal court ruled that Sun was likely to win its complaint. Sun has charged that Microsoft violated a contract and deliberately rigged its version of Sun's Java programming language to be incompatible with other versions. Since the tactic Microsoft used with Java is the same one that a Microsoft engineer (in the now-famous Halloween Memo) has proposed deploying against Linux and the open-source software movement, Sun's victory could mean that ...

Time out -- hold it right there! The flow of headlines from today's technology-biz wars is ceaseless and mesmerizing. But fix too long a gaze on the daily blow-by-blow and you can miss the deeper story, the longer-term trend. Famously paranoid technology executives like Bill Gates and Andy Grove understand this; Grove has indoctrinated his Intel hierarchy to look past the day's buzz and notice what he calls "strategic inflection points," when entire technology marketplaces undergo vast sea-changes.

Columnists sometimes need to do the same thing -- to look for the Big Picture. Over the past year that picture has become more full of peril for the Microsofts and Intels of the world than a whole courthouse full of lawyers reading old e-mail. Batten down the hatches, Messrs. Gates and Grove: strategic inflection point ahead.

Think for a minute about who uses computers today. (I said "Big Picture.") At one end of the spectrum there are the software developers, the network managers, the corporate information-systems types -- all of whom now fall under the late '90s rubric of "IT professional." (IT stands for "information technology.") At the other end of the spectrum there are businesspeople running spreadsheets, home users shopping and chatting online, students writing term papers -- the whole population that the computer industry long ago dubbed, with the inelegance it excels in, "end users."

The all-purpose computer that we know and love-hate as the PC -- a computing machine built to do all sorts of things acceptably rather than one thing superbly -- has evolved over the past two decades as a technological tool that stubbornly resists serving either of these groups very well. For most end users, today's PCs are both wildly over-powered and ridiculously frustrating to use. To a populace for whom programming the VCR remains an insurmountable hurdle, the byzantine intricacies of Windows -- or even the easier but still considerable challenges of the Mac -- stand as a baffling roadblock. Among the U.S. general public, household penetration of PCs seems to have plateaued in the 40 percent range; the rest of the world either can't afford to waste its money or can't be bothered to waste its time.

Meanwhile, as Microsoft struggles to make Windows a more "user-friendly" experience, it faces a rebellion among the IT professionals: They're unhappy with Microsoft software's spotty reliability, and many of them believe Microsoft's "usability enhancements" actually make their jobs harder by burying the computer's workings beyond hands-on reach. This is one of the chief pressures fueling the recent successes of the open-source software movement and its flagship Linux operating system: A lot of IT professionals want to get "closer to the machine," not because they love computing for its own sake (though many do), but because it enables them to do their jobs better, to keep their companies' systems running longer and to solve problems more creatively.

You'll find a sharp illustration of these two pressures on the all-purpose PC on the cover of this week's PC Week. The trade weekly features two side-by-side headlines: "PC Usability Still A Major Hurdle" talks about the "ease-of-use gap" left by "Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., which so far have been unable to deliver fully on their pledges to make systems and software easier to use." One column over, "Linux: Back Door to the Front Office" describes how many system administrators are so enthusiastic for Linux that they've begun deploying it without waiting for the go-ahead from cautious upper management.

The PC rose to dominance partly because it was the only game in town if you wanted computing power on your desk and partly because it drew on the labors of a kind of hobbyist class that was willing to put up with the technology's idiosyncrasies and help out stymied neighbors and friends. But there are only so many hobbyists in the world, and they have only so much patience.

Sooner or later, the computing needs of the "end user" will be met by smaller, cheaper, more reliable devices that let you surf the Web, send e-mail and write memos without having to buy a full-featured PC. An ad campaign for one new entrant in this market, Hewlett-Packard's Jornada "handheld PC," contrasts a long list of dozens of examples of "what a laptop can do" ("Put together a 3-D animated short film ... Assist with scientific visualization ... author virtual reality ...") with "what you really do: Get e-mail. Send e-mail. Search the Net. Prepare memos. Check appointments and contacts." End of list.

Pundits have been predicting the rise of such "information appliances" forever, but they have yet to displace the PC from its pedestal. I think that's mostly because the PC-addled brains in Silicon Valley have had a hard time designing "appliances" that meet people's needs. Eventually, someone will get it right -- just as Apple's Newton and General Magic had to fail before the PalmPilot came along and took off like a rocket.

With open-source software giving the geeks what they want -- ready access to the guts of their machines -- and "information appliances" giving the public what it wants -- intuitively easy Net access -- the PC is going to come in for a big squeeze. Don't be surprised if it ceases to lead the technology business's growth.

Of course, an industry this size isn't going to vanish. And you can bet that both Microsoft and Intel will fight for their hunks of any new businesses to emerge. (The Jornada, for instance, runs Microsoft's scaled-down Windows CE operating system. And Intel recently invested in Red Hat, a leading vendor of Linux software.) But in this uncertain emerging market, Intel and Microsoft will be vulnerable competitors rather than unassailable giants.

Unless, that is, they find a way to leverage their dominance of the existing PC universe into new monopolies in these new markets. In which case we will all find ourselves repairing once more to the antitrust books and returning to the court battles of 1998, wondering what went wrong.

Which just goes to show that every time you visit the Big Picture, you'd better go back to the day's headlines once you're done. They don't stop mattering just because larger trends may be pushing the technology world in new directions.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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