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

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In this chaotic world of hyperinnovation, vendors will seek to align themselves with the perceived market leaders of the day. Products will be judged not by their features or design quality, but by how many "works with x" or "ready for y" logos the vendor manages to squeeze onto the product packaging. Shopping for a new product will become a sick game of Sudoku, with customers scrambling to align the various component values into the correct sequential pattern. Success equals finding a group of complementary products that all sport at least one common logo program certification -- sort of the new Holy Grail of post-Windows IT.

The good news is that nature abhors a vacuum. In time, new players will emerge to redefine the PC hardware ecosystem around their particular platforms. This, in turn, will cause a shakeout among the software and hardware vendor communities, with those who bet on the wrong platform falling by the wayside. But the real question will be: What kind of force will this newly ascendant leader wield? Will it follow in the footsteps of Microsoft and use its standards-setting power to level the playing field? Or will it take the 1980s-era IBM approach and try to consolidate its death grip through proprietary lock-ins and similarly anticompetitive practices?

Bottom line: Just because Windows is out of the picture doesn't mean that you should expect a renaissance period of hardware innovation. The post-Microsoft world is just as likely to be a chaotic nightmare, full of competing vendor fiefdoms and walled technology encampments -- in other words, a return to the real Dark Ages of PC hardware.

Abandon all hope?
The picture I've painted here is indeed grim: Chaos. Confusion. A descent into the very ugliness that defined personal computing before Microsoft's ascendancy.

However, there may still be hope on the horizon. Google may prove to be a better steward of the post-Microsoft leadership mantle than I'm predicting here (though its handling of the recent China debacle doesn't instill confidence). Perhaps Google will help to establish standards for the presentation of application content and data through Web-centric user interfaces. Even the move to a non-Windows-centric hardware ecosystem may prove less disruptive than I'm imagining -- provided the current trend toward integrated, all-in-one devices (netbooks, tablet PCs) continues.

Maybe things will work out for the best. Or maybe -- and this is the scenario I consider most likely -- Microsoft will continue to co-opt each emerging, paradigm-shifting technology and leverage its billion-strong Windows installed base to keep software and hardware vendor communities focused squarely on that shiny, four-colored logo. As a person who favors stability over chaotic, disruptive change, I know which future I'm rooting for.

This article, "Life after Windows: What happens to tech if Microsoft dies," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments on Windows and Microsoft at InfoWorld.com.

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