Many people believe that 2012 represents the end of the world due to some quirk of the ancient Mayan calendar. I'm not so sure about that. But I do know the end of the year is approaching, so it seems like a good time to ponder the future and consider what might constitute the demise of the tech world as we know it.
A number of scenarios could play out and seriously damage the technology industry and all the people who depend on it. With that happy thought in mind, let's review some possibilities for 2012 and beyond.
Disaster scenario No. 1: Patent pools accelerate without government opposition
While everyone is watching the sideshows (Oracle v. Google, Apple v. Samsung), something more insidious is happening. The only thing worse than big companies playing a rich man's roulette with software patent suits is the possibility of them colluding and locking down the market together.
In 2010 and 2011, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and more became unlikely bedfellows looking to take in the Novell patents in a consortium known at CPTN. I was part of the Open Source Initiative board that helped stop or at least delay that pre-armageddon. Now the fun continues: Apple and Microsoft have continued their sinister cooperation with their acquisition of the Nortel patents. Kodak's patents were more of a fire sale (possibly because half of the threat was being pulled into court in Rochester, N.Y., for an incomprehensible result), but more walking corpses are ready for the picking.
Right now this mainly involves scooping up dead companies' patents, many of which have expired or are expiring -- and some of which are useless. But what if it doesn't stop there? While these companies are unlikely to donate their offensive and defensive patents to a mutual pool, what if they use their massive stock prices to buy up some of these patent trolls together? In fact, cooperative patent pool trolling is already under way. The biggest disaster here? Continued momentum without comprehensive patent reform or enforcement of antitrust laws.
Disaster scenario No. 2: We're right about Windows 8
What's bad for Microsoft is often bad for the industry. A Vista-level fiasco is not in anyone's best interest, even Apple's. We may not all want Microsoft feeling elated, but disastrous dejection is not great for our joint economic outlook, not to mention the poor souls stuck installing, uninstalling, supporting, and developing for something as bad as we're expecting. Please only be Windows 2000 bad and not Vista bad!
Disaster scenario No. 3: Linus Torvalds is hit by a bus
Linux remains the most important open source project in the world, used in everything from smartphones to consumer electronics to appliances to the enterprise servers that power e-commerce worldwide. Even mainframes run Linux, as do the supercomputers responsible for the world's most advanced scientific data analysis.
Linus Torvalds is the undisputed benevolent dictator and project manager for the Linux kernel -- and no one knows exactly what would happen if he were incapacitated for some reason. There are succession plans of a sort in the Linux world, and other prominent developers already manage large chunks of the kernel, but without Torvalds' vision and direction, it's possible that Linux development could stall or fragment, which would be bad news for everyone.