Life after Windows: What happens to tech if Microsoft dies

Free from the Microsoft hegemony, user and developer utopia should ensue, some argue -- but here's why apocalypse is more likely

It's the thought experiment we all like to engage in. What would life be like without Microsoft Windows? To listen to the free open source software crowd, the demise of Windows -- and by extension, Microsoft's hegemony over the PC universe -- would signal a kind of rebirth for information technology. Software would finally be free of the corporate shackles that have stifled innovation and dragged down the best and brightest among us.

Such thinking is naïve, at best. Rather than freeing IT, the demise of Microsoft would plunge the industry into an apocalyptic tailspin of biblical proportions -- no visions of hippie utopia here. The withdrawal of the Redmond giant's steady hand would cause today's computing landscape to tear itself apart at the seams, with application and device compatibility and interoperability devolving into the kind of Wild West chaos unseen since the days of the DOS big three: Lotus, WordPerfect, and Ashton-Tate.

[ InfoWorld envisions five possible futures for Microsoft. Which do you think is most on target? | Get the analysis and insights that only Randall C. Kennedy can provide on PC tech in InfoWorld's Enterprise Desktop blog. ]

And don't believe that the Web will somehow mitigate the impact of Windows' demise. Although Google talks a good story about supplanting traditional compute models with a Web-centric paradigm, the truth is that the folks from Mountain View are no less sinister when it comes to grandiose plans for world domination. If anything, the rise of Google -- or any dominant cloud-computing player -- should be perceived as a potential threat to IT independence. As the saying goes, never put all your IT eggs into a single vendor's basket.

But come, let us ponder together the implications of a world without that shiny, four-colored Windows logo. A world where standards are fleeting and where creativity and innovation have run amok. A post-apocalyptic vision worthy of the full Roland Emmerich disaster porn treatment. Here, in the spirit of the History Channel's "Life after People" series, I present my vision of life after Windows.

Client applications: Kiss consistency good-bye
The client application landscape will be almost unrecognizable in a post-Microsoft world. The deprecation of the legacy Windows API, coupled with the move to an entirely Web-based delivery model, will open the floodgates of innovation -- and create massive headaches for support personnel, who must now contend with the rich variety of UI designs and implementations that define the Web application experience.

Basically, you can kiss consistency good-bye. With developers free to create their own interface primitives, many arbitrary decisions will worm their way into the larger UI consciousness. Steps to complete even basic tasks -- for example, manipulating and formatting lists of data -- will vary widely among implementations. And while common Web metaphors (hyperlinks, form fields) will continue to function as expected, more exotic constructs -- like the Webified version of a tools palette -- will take on increasingly diverse modes of interaction. You'll still click on things (or, more likely, touch them on screen with a finger or stylus), but the resulting actions will be anything but predictable.

Cross-application integration will be another sore spot. With OLE/COM/VBA out of the picture, the job of linking data between disparate applications will fall to a mixture of JavaScript and various cloud-hosted APIs and resources. In some cases -- most notably, suites of applications from a single vendor -- this integration will occur seamlessly on the back end. However, without a robust, widely adopted standard for data exchange, such integration will be difficult to achieve between the various vendor-specific silos that will make up the future cloud computing fabric.

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