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Threats to Windows

Glimmers of hope shine through the cracks in Windows hegemony.

Everyone you talk to knows what’s wrong with the PC industry. Few have any hope of resolution. I’m talking, of course, about the Windows monopoly and all that it brings: We are forced down upgrade paths requiring more expensive hardware than we need (most of the time); with each successive upgrade, we encounter more restrictive licensing terms; and with each new PC we buy, a greater percentage of the total expense is devoted to software. In short, the Windows hegemony is like a corporate tax that we have no power to change.

Two long-standing trends have given users hope over the last few years: The seemingly endless antitrust action (now in its fourth year and before its fourth court) and alternative desktop operating systems. Neither has engendered much hope for the realists among us. The trial seems like too little, too late. Even if the nine states holding out for stronger remedies are successful, it will take years to undo the damage to the industry. As I write this, the final remedy stage is wrapping up and Federal Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is hinting at ruling in favor of the states, but watering down the proposed remedies somewhat. In any event, it looks as though computer OEMs will have more control over how they configure their systems after the ruling. New competition in systems and new developments for those systems will start showing up later this year. That said, it will take years before we see the kind of thriving innovation in the PC industry that we saw in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

As for alternative desktops (for affordable architectures), the situation seemed hopeless until recently. As Russ Mitchell so eloquently wrote last fall for Wired, Linux on the desktop has been a huge failure. What’s worse, it’s distracted thousands of bright developers away from a winnable causeÑdeveloping and promoting Linux on the server. Beyond usability, the problem with Linux on the desktop is Microsoft’s other monopolyÑOffice. Though Windows gets more press, Office is actually installed on a higher percentage of PCs. Until a version of Linux can run Office, Linux for the desktop is hopeless. StarOffice is no match for Microsoft Office, and it’s the best alternative. Enter Lindows, an open-source x86 desktop OS that runs both Linux and Windows applications. If Lindows is allowed to succeed, it may just be the alternative desktop we’ve all been hoping for. It promises the performance and freedom of Linux (no more locked-in upgrades) with the ease of use, features, and applications of Windows.

Those are lofty promises and Lindows’ path to success is fraught with challenges. The biggest challenge is, not surprisingly, from Microsoft. Shortly after Lindows was announced, Microsoft sued for copyright and trademark infringement. The early rounds have gone Lindows’ way, but a difficult jury trial will test the Lindows legal team against the well funded legal muscle of Microsoft.

Assuming Lindows passes the first test, the second-biggest challenge will also come from Microsoft. OEMs that sell computers with Lindows preloaded will not find favor from Redmond. Microsoft’s tentacles reach much farther than the PC, and sanctions in the .Net era for server and Web services interoperability can be expected. Some OEMs may choose not to risk harming their always tentative relationship with Microsoft and stick with Windows.

And then there’s the developer community. Suppose Microsoft develops a scheme to keep its new applications from running under Lindows. Developers have found that the only way to survive under the Windows hegemony is to partner with Microsoft in exchange for promises that versions of their Office or Windows add-ons are not bundled in the next Microsoft release. Established Microsoft partners whose stuff works with Lindows (or Mac OS X, for that matter) can expect Microsoft to develop competing software and bundle it free with the next Windows or Office version. Some developers will choose not to take that risk (the enemy you know). But this is where the open-source community will help break these innovation-stifling behaviors. If Lindows gets that far, those thousands of desktop Linux developers who have been fighting a losing battle will jump on board.

If it passes these tests, Lindows should eventually compete with Windows in ease of use, features, performance, and price. We can only hope.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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