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The Real Microsoft Monopoly

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The courts have ruled that Microsoft holds a monopoly position in Intel PC Operating Systems. Business users have long been aware of Microsoft's lock on office productivity applications that require them to use MS Office in order to remain compatible with their business partners and customers. And web-surfing users are now using Internet Explorer in a ratio of about 8:1 over alternative browsers.

But one aspect of Microsoft's monopoly is more fundamental than any of those; the investment in skill, experience, training, and tools of Windows software developers themselves.

Those programmers, who have logged many long sessions of coding for the Windows environments, and with their deep immersion in its assumptions, tools, and API's, represent millions of person-years of Microsoft assets.

For years it has been a difficult decision for a professional developer to choose an environment other than Windows. The scale of that market dwarfs its competitors and opens to developers many more specialty markets than any alternative platform. Further, the sheer size of the Windows installed base is seen as a hedge against market change. Windows is perceived as a platform that will be with us for a long time to come.

Because it can take years of effort to reach the highest levels of productivity in a complex development environment, Windows-specialized programmers have, through economic necessity, been unable to switch to a different platform. With a large majority of developers writing code for Windows, the continued dominance of Windows applications was also assured. The monopoly was elegantly self-perpetuating.

Many companies, failing to appreciate the depth of Microsoft's monopoly and its determination to defend it, squandered valuable resources probing Microsoft's markets for an opportunity. After several spectacular failures, it seemed nearly impossible for such a locked market to break free of this cycle.

It seemed impossible, that is, until recently. Windows is no longer leading the growth curve among operating systems. The near perfect seal at the margins of the monopoly, it turns out, is only effective against competitors with a requirement to make money.

While Microsoft once made the fending off of mighty IBM look easy, the Linux phenomenon presents a very different kind of challenge. It needs no profits, corporate partnerships, or investors in order to succeed. Linux depends only on hobbyists' passion for programming and their self-imposed standards of quality in their own work. Further, the Linux community seems to draw motivation from its dissatisfaction with the computing landscape that Microsoft has created.

This noncorporate juggernaut has grown so large that it is spilling into commercial markets on many fronts. Now, with the additional support of several large corporations, the expansion rate of Linux could actually accelerate.

Much of the continued growth of Linux will come at the expense of Microsoft. Others will lose business along the way, of course, but the ubiquitous presense of Microsoft astride the market presents many targets that are simply too broad to miss.

Unfortunately for Windows programmers, at some point the rapid growth of Linux will force the saturated Windows market to start shrinking. Soon thereafter, the seller's market for Windows programming services will become a buyer's market -- and pay scales will begin to drop. Although the computer industry has experienced many of these disruptions in the past as new competition entered the market, this will be the largest such contraction by far.

Confidence in the impenetrable market lock of MS Windows is slowly fading. Some years from now when this trend reversal is complete and documented, we will look back to a single turning point to call the end of Windows' dominance. I'm making my pick a little prematurely. I think the critical point was IBM's decision to support and invest heavily in Linux.
mail this link | score:9121 | -Ray, July 9, 2001 (Updated: April 18, 2007)
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