The industry cools down

Partnerships and consolidation mark the end of a turbulent quarter for high tech

Like the pull of gravity on distant stars and planets, which scientists say may someday lead to a reversal of the big bang, the Wintel architecture that spawned a thousand rivals is suddenly pulling everything back into its orbit.

So how should we read this movement in the stars? How will it affect us?

This year, Apple turned its back on IBM and Motorola and moved its mainstream platform to Intel. Palm already uses Intel processors. In late September, Research in Motion was also sucked into Intel's gravitational pull.

Intel -- or x86 architecture, if you will -- is a done deal on servers, desktops (Apple having been the last holdout), and notebooks. And now, Intel is in just about every mobile device worth considering.

What we are witnessing is the cooling off of an industry that has been white hot for 20 years. But unlike a new star, high tech is cooling from the inside out, with the infrastructure solidifying first.

In the “Win” part of the Wintel universe, earlier this year Microsoft and Sun Microsystems called a truce to work together on technologies that will be mutually beneficial to them and their corporate customers. At the end of September, Microsoft struck a deal with JBoss along similar lines. And earlier this spring, Microsoft announced that its Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 will support Red Hat Linux.

All I can say is, don’t assume that Sun, JBoss, Red Hat, or Linux will be the final winners here. “Microsoft is playing a delaying game. They have to answer today’s demands while continuing to get Vista, WinFS, and .Net into the final form,” is how Guy Smith, principal at Silicon Strategies Marketing, puts it.

September 2005 capped off a truly amazing three quarters with the news that Palm would release hardware running the Windows Mobile operating system. And while Palm CEO Ed Colligan denied this meant Palm was dropping the Palm OS, he managed to slip in this comment during the press conference: “We really think [Windows Mobile 5.0] brings a whole new set of functionality that the Palm operating system doesn’t necessarily have.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Palm OS.

Thanks to the Palm deal and the growing popularity of smarter phones, the battle for the green-field mobile-business market will come down to a head-to-head confrontation: Microsoft vs. Symbian. Anyone care to wager?

After the infrastructure has been truly standardized, we will begin to see more interactivity between remote users and the network. Palm-size devices will become more like the old terminals, linked to a more powerful machine via the wireless network. Users will be able to execute batch runs on preprogrammed responses. You could start up a computer farm from your remote device, says Hollis Bostick, a friend of mine who consults for Boeing and Pratt & Whitney.

And how could we forget Oracle? With the decks essentially cleared of rivals, Oracle has what it always wanted: a face-off with SAP. The truth is, in this arena, the market is big enough for both of them, and it may stay that way for a very long time.

At the end of the day, whether we admit it or not, when there are fewer environments to deal with and fewer variables calling for fewer experts in different disciplines, that’s a good thing.

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