Last week, I wrote about the "post-PC world" that is the current vision of choice for many tech pundits. Some conversations I've overheard recently suggest that some people believe it goes further than that; they suggest that we're on the verge of a Brave New World that not only won't include PCs but eventually won't include Microsoft at all.
These are generally the same people who claim the company is failing (despite record profits), becoming irrelevant (despite the almost ubiquitous nature of its software), and is destined to fade into the annals of history sooner than later. I think that's a ridiculous point of view, but if it did happen, it would be a sad thing for all of us, including those who only use Macs or Linux and those who don't own or use computers at all. Although many might rejoice at the idea, I don't think they would enjoy the reality quite as much as they think.
The impossible dream
The idea that a company with a $214.65 billion market cap and over $50 billion in cash is going to go away anytime soon is patently absurd on the face of it. If General Motors and Bank of America (with market caps of $37 billion and $83 billion, respectively) are deemed "too big to fail," surely the tech giants fit into that category, as well.
But let's presume for a moment that it could happen. The effect on the economy if Microsoft were to suddenly go out of business would be devastating. Not only would over 90,000 people who are directly employed by Microsoft be out of a job, but so would many companies and individual consultants who install Microsoft technologies. In fact, an IDC paper issued last March estimated that in 2010 the Microsoft Partner ecosystem alone generated revenues of $580 billion. That's more than twice the federal budget for general government, education and transportation combined.
Of course, one could also argue that if Microsoft were to suddenly go out of business, there would be a big opportunity for companies that support Microsoft software. After all, it's highly unlikely that the 87.59% of computer users who are currently running Windows would immediately switch to something else. With Microsoft no longer there to support them, someone would have to.
But would those companies take over for Microsoft in such areas as creating and issuing patches to fix issues and vulnerabilities? Even if they did, would each supporting company do its own thing, so that there would be dozens of different versions of those patches? With no standardization, things could get pretty wild and woolly, and compatibility issues would be more likely.
Who would be hurt?
If Microsoft did disappear, what would the impact be on all those who would find themselves stuck with an unsupported, end-of-the-line OS? Certainly they could continue to run it for ten-plus years, as many have done with XP (and, in fact, there are some computers still running Windows 98, 2000, and NT). But eventually systems break down and have to be replaced. The cost of retraining users on a brand-new system would be significant (despite all the complaints about changes when users upgrade to a new version of Windows, there are still enough basic similarities to make it easier than switching to Mac or Linux).
End users, however, are only part of the equation. Millions of IT pros who have spent their entire careers learning all the ins and outs of Windows server products would have to start over and learn UNIX, the only viable replacement. Or would the demise of Microsoft lead to the end of on-premise datacenters and thus the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs? Would we all end up living in a UNIX-based cloud? I believe taking Microsoft out of the picture would change the face of IT dramatically — and not for the better.
A big problem in moving off of Windows is not about the OS at all; it's about applications. The millions of programs written to work on Windows would have to be ported to another platform, or users would have to switch to new apps. For companies that run expensive proprietary special-purpose software, the cost could be astronomical.
Of course, not every company would be hurt by Microsoft's demise, and the two that would obviously stand to benefit most are Apple and Google. Left without Microsoft to provide a middle road, we might see an all-out war break out between the two very different philosophies: Apple's policies of extreme lockdown and control and Google's professed dedication to openness and choice. The real problem would arise if one or the other became a clear winner. The company that prevailed would be in the same sort of monopolistic situation that Microsoft once enjoyed, but operating from a more extreme position.
What many of those who want to dance on Microsoft's grave don't realize is just how many pies the company has its fingers in. When we think of Microsoft, most of us think of Windows client and server operating systems, Office and related productivity software, the server systems (Exchange, SharePoint, SQL, Lync), management tools (System Center family), and maybe Windows Phone and Xbox. But there are a huge number of dedicated devices out there running the Windows embedded operating systems, from Point of Sale terminals to vending machines to automobiles and more.
Microsoft also provides special services and support to many vertical markets, such as health care, bioscience, education, government, law enforcement, manufacturing, the energy industry, aviation, retail, financial services, and more. If those resources were suddenly withdrawn, it would have a substantial impact on those industries.
Microsoft's Research division operates laboratories all over the world and collaborates with top institutions such as M.I.T., Carnegie-Mellon, and Barcelona Supercomputing Center on futuristic projects. They employ many top experts in computer science, math, and physics, including a number of Turing award winners. With the deep pockets of Microsoft behind them, these people are able to pursue new ideas that could end up changing our lives.
Microsoft sponsors scholarship programs that enable talented young people to pursue careers as programmers, developers, and software engineers. They also run a summer internship program to help students get a taste of the real world of software development and production.
As popular as the notion might be in some circles, I believe a world without Microsoft would make our lives worse, not better. Even if you prefer a different OS, your life and your computing experience would be affected. The competition from Microsoft helps to motivate other companies to come up with new innovations. And Microsoft does much more than just make personal computer operating systems and applications. They sit at the core of a huge ecosystem, the collapse of which would turn that "impossible dream" of a world without Redmond's influence into a nightmare.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.