Sanity check: Could one of these five companies be the next Microsoft?

Although Microsoft's downfall has been predicted countless times over the past decade, the software giant is as pervasive as ever in business technology. However, if there were going to be a company to knock Microsoft off the top of the hill, TechRepublic's Jason Hiner thinks it would be one of these five candidates.

In March 2005, I was walking through downtown Chicago on my way to an event at the Microsoft office on West Wacker Drive, and I was thinking about the growing perception that Microsoft was yesterday's news. Linux and the Internet were the future, and Microsoft was the past. And then I looked around at all of the Chicago skyscrapers and thought, "I wonder how many licenses of Windows and Office are running in these buildings?"

At that moment, it was undeniably clear to me that Microsoft was still the biggest, most influential, and most pervasive company in business technology. And since I had previously worked in IT and was well aware of how much time and effort it takes to migrate from one platform to another, I realized that Microsoft was going to be a major player in biz tech for a long time, even if things changed and they went into decline on new deployments.

I was also aware that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had repeatedly said that some day a company -- possibly a little guy -- could certainly come along and outmaneuver Microsoft and take its place at the top of the IT industry, just as Microsoft swept in and grabbed that spot from IBM, the previous king of IT.

So, if a company were to take Microsoft's crown, who would it be? The graveyard of failed challengers is littered with names like Netscape, Novell, Sun Microsystems, and even a reborn IBM. All of those companies -- with the exception of Netscape -- are still ticking and doing important work, but none of them is threatening for the top spot in the industry.

Here are five companies that are threatening for the top spot in the industry, or could be soon.

5. Zoho

This is the only real "little guy" on the list. I've written about the fact that Zoho already has an online office suite that is better than anything from Microsoft or Google. While the product is really good, what has been equally important for Zoho is that it has proven that it knows how to execute. Microsoft got to where it is today because it was faster and more effective at executing than any of its competitors, even if the products themselves weren't always better. In 2007, Zoho has been running circles around Microsoft and Google in online office apps. It seems as if Zoho is releasing a new product or a key product update nearly every week, while Microsoft's office suite and Google's apps have been stagnant by comparison.

In just the last few weeks, Zoho has released Zoho Start (a user dashboard for files) and Zoho Business (a way for businesses to manage its online office users) to add to its growing stable of more than 15 programs. Zoho is quickly morphing into a platform. The question is whether that platform will extend beyond online productivity software and become something much larger and further integrated into the various layers of computing and the Internet. If Zoho continues its current pace, it has the potential to become a giant and create the next great business software platform.

4. Amazon

In this context, don't think of Amazon as the online bookstore that it is most famous for. Think about Amazon as the company that built the world's most robust e-commerce platform. Think of Amazon as the company thinks of itself -- as a technology company that happens to do retail and e-commerce. With Amazon Web Services (, the company is positioning itself as a data center company and a business enabler. It wants to run virtualized data centers that are scalable, flexible, and modular and to allow individual companies to focus on the things they do well and let Amazon streamline the platform.

Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and Simple Storage Service (S3) are examples of this strategy. If the future does turn out to be "in the cloud," Amazon could be the big winner if it pulls off this strategy. It could create a modular software platform with an ecosystem of lots of small to medium software vendors to deliver solutions that are intangibly integrated as part of the platform.

3. Apple

Wasn't this war over a long time ago? I know that's what you thought when you saw Apple on this list. And it's true that Windows soundly defeated the Macintosh in the operating system wars of the 1990s. While the Mac is making a nice little comeback right now, it's certainly not going to unseat Windows as the world's most prevalent desktop OS any time soon. Apple's greatest hope for the future is that the global tech market will rapidly expand and that the size of individual computers will shrunk and be much more focused on mobility.

In 2007, with the iPhone, Apple came out of nowhere to create the world's best smartphone and the first truly usable Internet device that can fit into your pocket. If the future puts mobile devices at the heart of computing, then, with the iPhone (along with the Mac and Apple's servers and software businesses), Apple could be well-positioned to move beyond just its niche market and make a bigger play in the technology market. I wouldn't bet on it, but then again, I would have never predicted that Apple could jump to the head of the class in smartphones, either.

2. Google

You thought this one was going to be No. 1, right? Then you've never heard my Google is overrated spiel. Nevertheless, Google remains the hottest company in the tech market and the darling of both average users and Wall Street investors. Google is one of the few companies that is actively building a platform aimed at directly competing with Microsoft, even if Google is sometimes reluctant to publicly admit that. Google already has an application platform and has long been rumored to be working on a mobile phone platform (gPhone) and an operating system (GoogleOS).

Even if the phone and OS rumors turn out to be false in the short term, make no mistake that Google does not just want to be an Internet search company. Its ambitions are far larger, and it is one of the few companies that has the kind of capital needed to take on the Microsoft empire. Google wants to use its war chest of cash to build the next generation computing platform, whatever that turns out to be -- and the engineers at Google will likely play a key role in shaping it.

1. Cisco

You could rightfully argue that Cisco is already the king of a large domain in computer networking. And while it may appear to have very little to do with the next generation platform that could replace Microsoft technologies, you need to keep in mind two important factors. First, if the future of computing is cloud-based, the network will be a much more central part of computing than it is today (and networking devices will need to be much smarter and more sophisticated). Second, Cisco may be the world's most effective company at acquiring other companies, and in recent years it has been acquiring more than just networking hardware businesses. For example, WebEx,, IronPort (security software), Five Across (social networking), and NeoPath (storage systems).

Cisco is re-fashioning itself as a technology company for the masses. This strategy can be seen not just in its recent acquisitions, but also in its $100 million "Human Network" ad campaign that has been squarely aimed at the general populace and not just techies and business execs. Although Microsoft and Cisco have recently agreed to partner on their burgeoning unified communications technologies, both Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Cisco CEO John Chambers admitted that they are still competitors. If Cisco's recent acquisitions are just a taste of more to come and it lands a few big acquisitions in software and platforms, it would clearly become the No. 1 contender for Microsoft's crown.

Who do you think has the best shot at becoming the next Microsoft? Join the discussion.