Some New Nags

And then Java appeared. With its siren call of "write once, run anywhere," corporate America, frozen in place by indecision, decided to give the newcomer a close look. Perhaps this was a safer choice than attempting to pick the right pony in the Microsoft OS competition. Microsoft, taken by surprise, was forced to "embrace" Java via a humiliating agreement to license it from archrival Sun Microsystems. That done, Microsoft spent enormous amounts of time, effort, and money trying to convert the supposedly platform-independent Java into a proprietary extension of Windows (whichever Windows) and introducing a new programming language, C#, to compete with it.

To complicate matters further, Linux, an open-source OS based on UNIX that came with its source code, began making a considerable splash in the market. Bundled with a freeware Apache Web server by such firms as Red Hat, Linux eventually relieved Microsoft's NT, Sun Microsystems's Solaris, and Novell's NetWare of significant market share.

Java's future and Linux's ultimate success in loosening Microsoft's iron grip on the OS market is unclear. Microsoft finally learned its lesson and announced that in the future there would be only one Windows product line, XP, with different versions aimed at different users and platforms. But it's also unclear how long and how successful Microsoft's plans to migrate users from all the other Windows variants will be. As of this writing, Windows 98, really no more than an upgrade of Windows 95, is still in use by approximately 20 percent of Windows users, though in July of 2006 Microsoft discontinued support for this version of the venerable OS. What's clear is that Microsoft's situation would have been very different if the market had been focused on how to upgrade from Windows 3.x and not on what to upgrade to. Also, more than ten years after the Netscape IPO of 1995, the combination of software as a service (SaaS, the successor to the earlier ASP fiasco) and new technologies such as mashups and Ajax threaten to make the mid-1990s dream of using the Internet as a platform to bypass the desktop operating system a reality.

Making matters even more interesting (and demonstrating that companies need to learn the same lesson again and again) is that Microsoft has announced that Vista, its long-delayed upgrade to Windows XP, will come in no less than six versions. (Not to mention the "N" products, versions of Windows absent the media player and instant messaging utilities the company has been forced to develop in Europe and Korea because of the fallout from its antitrust case loss.) Microsoft probably hopes that Windows customers will be so busy trying to figure out which Windows to buy they'll be too exhausted to give any alternative a try. But as we've seen, when you give customers a reason to shop, you can be sure they will. The ghosts of WordStar and WordStar 2000, still locked in eternal combat, gibber from high tech's graveyard, a warning to all of the grim fate that awaits those who dare to repeat MicroPro's positioning sin.

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