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Computing is Changing at its Own Pace January 5, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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I’m not inclined to make predictions of computing trends in 2010; such predictions are good for debate fodder, but technology is so unpredictable that any prediction specific enough to be useful will, in the space of a year, almost certainly be wrong and possibly foolish.  And I’m just not very good at seeing into the future.

However, I think it is obvious that the field we call computing changed rather dramatically in the last year, and will continue to do so into 2010.  I find evidence of that in the increased loss of market share of Microsoft Windows.  It’s not that Windows is getting increasing worse; rather, it’s that our choices are rapidly becoming far more numerous.  And we’re increasingly choosing alternative platforms of all types over a Windows PC.

A large part of that is Apple Macs, of course.  While OS X isn’t particularly new technology, the UI and feature set are compelling to many, and the world loves an endearing underdog.  So Apple’s market share has been growing slowly but steadily over the last decade.

Netbooks are also helping.  Granted, many of them run a version of Windows (my early purchase runs XP Home Edition), but the smaller form factor and more focused uses means that the operating system becomes less relevant.  You don’t need the latest OS, and you probably don’t even need Windows.

But phones, e-readers, and other devices are really making the difference here.  Smartphones are now software platforms and developers are flocking to them.  Many of the applications being written are trivial or even nonsensical, but more than a few are interesting and compelling.  And users are responding, buying hundreds of millions of phones and e-readers.

And fewer of these are running Windows Mobile.  Instead, the operating systems are many and varied.  In most cases, users don’t even know, or care, what OS their device is running.  What matters are convenience, features, and applications.

What this means is that the Internet is driving computer use, and as access keeps getting better, the user moves farther and farther away from the operating system and closer to the cloud that is the Internet.  How else could Google launch an entirely new OS that is fundamentally little more than a Web browser?

Economics writer Robert Samuelson notes that mature companies lose more jobs than they create over time, and that new companies create all net new jobs.  I wonder if the same logic applies to computing.  Microsoft is gradually losing market share, even as its overall business is growing.  It hasn’t successfully innovated in response to the Internet, and finds itself left with an increasingly legacy business.

Of course, this isn’t going to destroy Microsoft’s hegemony over the desktop computer.  The traditional computer form factor isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  And Windows, IE, and Windows-based Web sites and applications will remain common on the Internet.

But Microsoft is in the unusual position of having to innovate in order to grow market share, something it has never seriously had to do.  I would hate to bet against Microsoft, but it seems singularly ill-prepared to take on this challenge.

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