Opinion: Get ready, the Windows era is over

"The combined market presence and experience of these three companies could spell doom for the Microsoft monopoly," The headlines rang out, but were they talking about the recent AOL/Netscape/Sun deal or the historic Apple/Motorola/IBM deal that begat the ill-fated PowerPC?

Well both, actually. And like the PowerPC deal, the recent AOL buyout of Netscape (with a little Sun on the side) will do nothing--absolutely nothing--to harm Windows in the foreseeable future. That is, Internet Explorer will still beat Netscape Navigator in the browser wars. AOL can't stop that from happening. The problem is, it won't matter. Because AOL has found the solution to Windows, and eventually this little corporate takeover will stumble on the key to beating Windows.

And it has nothing to do with Netscape, or Web browsers. Or personal computers. Or servers. Or operating systems. Or any market that Microsoft currently has a foothold in. You see, the future of computing has nothing to do with "computers" at all; it's about "computing devices" that are seamlessly integrated into our homes and just about virtually every single device we use on a daily basis: The phone, the television, the radio, even the wall of the living room (which will become the TV when we want it to). Do you think this is far fetched, or at least still years away?

Think again.

Or, as Apple says, "think different." Not that Apple stands a chance in this brave new world. Apple is still fighting yesterday's battle, the battle for the desktop operating system. Guys, that war is over. Windows not only won the war, but it will also be the last one standing, on a bloody hill with fallen competitors laying at its feet. The only problem is that Windows will be all alone, the last dying remains of a once-powerful PC world, as forgotten as CP/M. The times are changing and personal computers are going mainstream: Soon they won't be "computers" anymore. Meanwhile, over at Apple, they're working on a next generation PC desktop operating system, seemingly oblivious that no one cares anymore.

Microsoft, at least, has a vague understanding of what's happening. Its Windows CE operating system was developed specifically to work with non-PC devices, and as of today, the first Windows CE-based home console unit is now available in Japan. It's called the Dreamcast, and it's a 128-bit competitor to Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation that runs DirectX games with hardware accelerated 3D. It also has Internet connectivity and works off of your huge television in the living room, not that little beige box you hide in the office. It's the first step toward the integrated "Web lifestyle" Bill Gates talks about.

Not that Microsoft has the future well in hand, and this is where AOL and Sun come in. You see, Windows CE has a huge problem: It looks and works like Windows. In the short term, this will be seen as a benefit, but the reality is that there are far more people out there with no PC experience than there are people with PC experience. For the integrated future I'm discussing to really take off, the tools we use are going to have to be a lot simpler than Windows CE, which is itself a lot simpler than Windows. Windows, like other PC user interfaces, is not up to the task.

It's not simple enough.

And AOL agrees with me. They're going to use Java technology to bring the Internet to a variety of devices, all the devices I've discussed, and more I can't even imagine yet. They're going to work at creating an integrated Web lifestyle for everyone in this country and the world. Ultimately, they may not be the ones that succeed, but it is going to happen. Who knows, maybe Microsoft may even grab a piece of the pie and we'll see a future that mirrors the early 1980's, where a variety of clients and operating systems compete against each other. I doubt it: For the integrated future to work, the "client" has to be a seamless, faceless commodity. And Microsoft isn't interested in a commodity, only a monopoly, where they can make the most money. Maybe they'll just create their wonderful apps for this future system and walk away from client OSes all together. On the back-end, companies with the infrastructure--AOL and Sun, right now--are ideally situated to take control, leaving Microsoft in the dust. Sure, there will always be a business for servers and Microsoft--with its competitors such as Linux, Oracle, and the like--will be able to make money on that business for some time to come.

But the future of personal computers is a future *without* personal computers. It's a future without Windows and it's certainly a future without the Macintosh. I see a day where a spinning graphical envelope appears silently in the lower-right corner of the wall-based TV screen during a football game, alerting me that I have email. I will choose to open the mail in another screen, in a picture-in-picture window, or on that very screen (perhaps during a commercial). It will be a video email, of course. And as the family gathers 'round to get in on the video reply, I'll know that this day came a lot quicker than we thought it might.

The best part of this future world is that Windows will have nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing. I'll bore my kids with stories about the computers that used to crash all the time, and they'll tell me that the Apple II computer I've saved from the trash is virtually identical to the Pentium II 450 I bought in the late 1990's.

And they'll be right. The PC--like the Apple II now--is a dinosaur from an earlier age, once the master of the world. And AOL is now working on the technological equivalent of a meteor, which they'll use to end the age of the PC forever.

I can't wait.


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