Do You Really Want to Escape the Microsoft Safety Net?

Every year, tech prognosticators predict that this, finally, will be the year of desktop Linux. It's never happened, obviously, but that doesn't stop a certain crowd from bravely reiterating the same tired forecast, year after year after year. It's become a source of humor for me, but when I really stop and think about it, I do wonder why so few businesses have looked beyond the Microsoft safety net.

Don't get me wrong. Microsoft's solutions on the desktop, server, and in the mobile space are generally top-notch. There's nothing like Windows Vista, Windows XP, or Microsoft Office 2007 in the open-source world--not even close. And although many businesses have moved to low-cost Linux servers for infrastructure services--DNS, DHCP, some Web serving, and so on--few would argue that Windows Server 2003 (and its many derivatives) is anything but a first-class server OS, suitable for a wide range of duties. And Windows Mobile? In the enterprise space, there's Windows Mobile and everyone else. Forget about it.

But once you get out of the traditional, white-collared American business, there are plenty of opportunities for the open-source competition. Emerging computing marketplaces such as South and Central America, Southeast Asia, China, and Africa are all obvious candidates for open-source computing solutions, which typically require lower-end computers that are less expensive and complicated than those needed by Windows.

Education is another obvious area. Cash-strapped schools have always presented a classic IT challenge, with huge numbers of users, limited financial resources, and a need for standardization. Few educational institutions can afford to stay up-to-date with the latest Microsoft technologies. And why should they? With more and more students gravitating toward Web-based solutions such as Gmail, IM, and the like, the underlying local platform becomes less and less important. Indeed, a student can write a heavily plagiarized term paper just as easily in the free OpenOffice suite as he or she could in Microsoft's comparatively expensive and feature-packed Office.

Conceding either of these markets could destroy Microsoft in the long run, so my guess is that the company will do what it can to prevent a future in which billions of people in emerging economies and new generations of students have grown up with non-Microsoft solutions. After all, the pervasiveness of Microsoft today is due in no small part to the fact that we all simply continued using what we know and upgraded again and again. Decades later, Microsoft is essentially a tradition. It works, so why look elsewhere?

Furthermore, the cost of running any computing platform, and indeed the cost of migrating to a new platform, has little to do with actual out-of-box costs, of course. The Microsoft value proposition is determined mostly by functionality and support, two areas in which free and open-source solutions simply aren't as competitive in general. (Obviously, there are exceptions. Apache, for example, is a first-class Web server.) And everyone reading this probably understands that it can be problematic enough simply upgrading from one version of a Microsoft product to another. Switching wholesale to a new platform is scary and could be disastrous. Few of us are starting from scratch at this point, or want to do so.

We live in a world in which solutions such as Linux,, Gmail, and Mozilla Firefox are good enough and even superior in some ways. And yet, Windows, Office, and Windows Server continue their dominance or near-dominance in almost every conceivable way. I'm concerned that this might not always be the case, but I'm also curious why this continues to be true. Why do you continue to turn to Microsoft again and again? And are there any circumstances in which you've made the unusual step of simply walking away? Do you think that the changing computing habits of end users will have dramatic effects on businesses going forward? Please drop me a note at [email protected] and let me know what you think.

Editor's Note: Voting is open in the Windows IT Pro 2007 Community Choice Awards! Vote for your favorite products from the Buyer's Guides we published in Windows IT Pro over the past 12 months. We've added three new categories--iSCSI storage arrays, UPS products, and two-factor authentication products, which are open for voting on the Windows IT Pro forums. We'll open three new categories each week for the next three weeks, and voting will remain open for three weeks per category. To see the list of products in each category and place your vote, follow these links:

iSCSI storage arrays

UPS products

Two-factor authentication products

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