Microsoft's challenging road ahead

It’s certainly not the first time this has been asked, and there’s a good chance it won’t be the last time: Could 2011 mark the beginning of the end for Microsoft?

For as long as I have been a journalist someone has predicted the demise of Microsoft at the start of every year. I’ve even been tempted on more than one occasion but have generally resisted – but this time, I think, it is different.

For a long time the demise of Microsoft was always tied to the rise of Linux. Could Linux kill off Microsoft’s market dominance? Could Linux become the desktop of the future? Only the most optimistic Linux fan could truly believe that Linux could out-do Windows.

Ironically, it looks very likely that it will be Linux that ultimately undermines Microsoft. Not because Linux has a better desktop offering or a more appealing lure for consumers, but because Linux is quickly starting to dominate the new frontier of  technology: mobile.

Mobile wasteland

Over the past couple of years Microsoft has frittered away its strong position in mobile, fumbling a succession of Windows Mobile upgrades until it finally got Windows Phone 7 together. Instead of releasing Windows Phone 7 two years ago as originally planned, Microsoft filled the gaps with poor substitutes for a smartphone strategy such as Windows Mobile 6.5.

Once upon a time Microsoft could afford to take its time with new releases of anything it produced. Consumers didn’t have a great deal of choice so had to simply wait for the next big thing from Redmond. Microsoft no longer has this luxury.

While Microsoft worked at getting a real smartphone operating system out into the world, Apple and Google were steaming ahead, and the pace was relentless. Two years ago Android was barely known. Today it dominates the smartphone market.

Users, developers and product makers were stuck in a difficult position: hold out for Microsoft’s next big mobile OS or move on. HTC, one of Microsoft’s original allies and the biggest supplier of Windows Mobile devices, jumped ship. It quickly set itself up as one of the leading Android purveyors.

Linux everywhere

It’s not all about mobile, you say. Of course it isn’t. Microsoft still dominates on the desktop, that much is true. But for how much longer?

Simply being good at desktop software is not good enough anymore. A rapidly increasing number of users are now accessing the web, doing their banking and playing games on their mobile phones, netbooks and tablet PCs, and not on their desktop PC. How many of those new smartphones and tablet PCs run Windows? Barely any of them. Most are running Android.

The challenge that Microsoft faces now is not just about Android. The real threat is Linux.

Consider this: Android is Linux based. HP’s recently acquired WebOS is Linux based, Intel’s Meego is Linux. Even Blackberry’s QNX-based operating system is Unix-based, a close relative of Linux.

The next wave of personal computing (mobile) is already dominated by Linux, even if most users are not aware of it. The longer users go without Windows the less attached they become to it and the more they realise they don’t actually need Windows.

No doubt Microsoft will use its recent deal with Nokia to full effect and will regain a share of the smartphone market in years to come. Howevr, if they wait too much longer there won’t be much left to reclaim. It will already have been snapped up by Android.

Silent giant

Then there is the HP factor. The world’s largest hardware maker has been something of a silent giant of late. Amid the general dash by hardware makers to get in on the tablet PC market, HP has been notably absent. Until now.

HP recently acquired Palm Computing, and along with that, the WebOS operating system. Used by Palm for its phone devices, WebOS is a Linux-based OS. It’s taken HP since the September 2010 acquisition to finally make clear its intentions with WebOS and now we have it: It plans on putting WebOS in everything it ships.

Already there are a couple of HP phones running WebOS and the TouchPad tablet PC. Soon there will also be printers and notebooks running WebOS. Could this mean that Windows will no longer have a place in the HP hardware line-up? It looks likely.

No matter what, HP shipping Linux-based devices has to have a knock-on effect. The next time you’re out looking for a PC and your printer, phone and tablet PC all run Linux, will you choose a Linux-based PC or a Windows one?

Microsoft has a lot to be worried about right now if it wants to retain its position in the world of consumer technology.

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Microsoft's challenging road ahead