In-Depth

Cover Story: The 800-Pound Gorilla

Can anything threaten the Microsoft desktop empire?

When it comes to clients, Microsoft is in the catbird's seat. Despite the Mac, thin clients like Sun Rays, and dozens of iterations of desktop Linux, Windows is on at least nine out of 10 clients. And almost every one of those is running some version of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft critics claim that there's competition and viable alternatives, but only the truly passionate among them buy Macs, or load desktop Linux and open source Office alternatives like OpenOffice.

What conditions would be necessary to turn the fringe into the mainstream and end Microsoft client domination forever? Is there a perfect software storm that could wash away Office and XP like so much flotsam?

A key to understanding Microsoft's exalted position is to realize that Office and Windows are mutually supporting entities: Windows came first, then shepherded Office applications into its healthy market share, starting with Excel and Word. Through an absolute commitment to exploiting Windows, Office has become more and more entrenched. Now Office is part of the Windows ecosystem, and its popularity likewise makes Windows indispensable, creating dual and intimately connected monopolies. Thus, anyone hoping to unseat one has to deal with the other.

The Microsoft Quilt -- Domination Through Integration
And that position is fortified by an array of ancillary products, including Windows Servers; Active Directory; Outlook; Exchange; SQL Server and so on. For better than a decade, Microsoft has been building an elaborate technology quilt that makes it difficult to break away from the family. Even if, for example, another database or e-mail system works better, IT usually opts for the Microsoft solution due to its tight integration with the installed base.

"As a corporation we've standardized on Active Directory and Exchange, XP, Office and, soon, SharePoint. And it took years to get to this point," says an IT pro who asked not to be identified. "Individual offices might go off the reservation about one application or another, but it would never change the monoculture. Decisions are firmly top-down."

In order to compete, non-Microsoft Office suites and PC operating systems have to offer the same level of integration. That is perhaps one reason the European Commission is trying to force Microsoft to fully document its Windows interfaces, giving competitors the same ability to integrate as Redmond itself.

Politics of Switching
No level of integration will matter, however, unless the decision makers give the green light. And entrenched management thinking will keep Microsoft solidly in place, according to Edward Bailey, with HVAC distributor Carrier Great Lakes in Livonia, Mich. "The top management here are e-mail users only -- nothing more. [The issue is] mostly cost more than anything else. We are using AD and Group Policy for control of the environment and Windows Server 2000 and 2003 are working very well for us. We also use Exchange -- again working wonderfully well," says Bailey.

Sydney McCoy says management at his company could be persuaded to switch -- with hard numbers. "If it can be demonstrated that necessary functionality and full compatibility exists, with no demonstrative impact to productivity or processing overhead, then potential open source licensing cost savings and broad-based support and acceptance would likely be overwhelmingly welcomed throughout management," says McCoy. "I've been dabbling with the potential substitution of a SLES [SuSE Linux Enterprise Server] file and print server, but the biggest obstacle is our inexperience with the platform, rather than any potential licensing costs vs. savings. As go the bean counters and lawyers, so follows the entire staff."

Is Microsoft Losing Its Grip?

Tony Bove has written the book on getting off of Microsoft -- literally. His book, aptly titled Just Say No to Microsoft, talks about how and why you should look at alternatives. Bove talked to Redmond magazine about potential Windows/Office tipping points.

What events or factors could cause the Microsoft XP and Office monopolies to crumble?
Tony Bove: It's happening now. The company as it is today just wasn't made for these times. As Gates himself pointed out in his recent memo to Microsoft executives, a "services wave" of applications is about to reach millions of users, and Microsoft needs to catch up. But the move to offer a services platform for developers puts Microsoft between a rock and a hard place with regard to its existing software business models. So Microsoft has to start over.

The latest Gates memo indicates that Microsoft faces competition on all fronts -- not just Windows; not just Office. Open source software threatens everything from server and client systems to e-mail clients and servers, databases and applications. Mac OS X is a threat to Microsoft's entire computing experience. Even though the vast majority of everyday computer users are stuck in Windows XP, the cutting edge of innovation is happening elsewhere.

What would cause a mass move away from Microsoft to alternatives?
More bad press about viruses and malware. It amazes me that the industry and press still refer to new outbreaks as "computer viruses" and "computer adware and spyware," rather than what they really are: Windows, Outlook, IE and Office viruses and malware.

Office has matured to the point that it's not only easy to clone but easy to improve upon. Windows is under constant attack from Linux and Mac OS X. The reason people give for needing to use Windows -- because they need to run certain applications -- is quickly eroding. To use the new Internet services, all you need is a computer that runs a browser.

I think [potential] missteps by Microsoft in the coming year -- with Vista, and with advertising-supported software -- will reduce the Microsoft monopoly enough to enhance competition and spark more innovations. At some point a low-cost, non-Windows computer will be very popular for the consumer market, and so will Apple Macs on the "high end." It's only a matter of time. -- D.B.

All About the Beans
Ah yes, the beans. Open source fans tout the cost savings: after all, it's pretty hard to beat free. Even in this arena, though, open source contenders still have to prove themselves, as costs other than the software must be considered. "Any consideration of a replacement to Microsoft products would have to entail administration, deployment, security and upgrades, at a minimum," says JC Warren, a network management specialist for a high tech company. "I'd have to be dramatically dissatisfied with our current product suite to even begin to consider alternatives. If an alternate product suite could be found that would improve user productivity, I'd then have to consider the costs of deployment, administration, etc., in order to get a handle on the total cost to switch. Then we'd need to factor in the learning curve for users to attain their previous functional state. Any time lost is money lost to my employer."

Tech Support
Downtime also costs money, and tech support is a huge tipping point factor. "I've had former colleagues relate the horror stories of being forced to switch to an open source product by misguided management, only to strip it out after it proved totally unsupportable in a corporate environment," says Warren.

For Microsoft challengers to make inroads, it's clear that tech support will need to improve. Fortunately for them, Microsoft may have provided an opening. "For some products, Microsoft has stopped having higher-level support available during evenings and weekends," laments Karl W. Palachuk, of KPEnterprises Business Consulting Inc. "So a call might get escalated during the week, but you're back to Tier-One [support] on Friday night and all weekend. In other words, the highest level of support for the biggest problems is only available during business hours, during the week. In what universe does this make sense? I'm not ready to make the switch today, but I find myself surprisingly open to the possibility."

Why I'm Sticking with Windows

By David R. Bayer

As network administrator for a small part of a very large heterogeneous network, I've had to weigh the pros and cons of alternate OSes for my corner of the world. Even in my small area of responsibility -- 250 workstations, three servers and one virtual server -- we're running various versions of Windows and Macs, along with Windows and Linux servers. This is all part of a large Active Directory network (30,000-plus nodes). There are several things that prevent me from really migrating away from Windows.

The first, and most important, reason is the remote control capabilities we get with AD and Group Policy. Controlling logins, software updates and distribution and various other items are a big plus for us. I haven't heard of a good way to do that on Linux yet, and haven't gotten buy-in from management for Apple's Open Directory.

Another biggie is user education. The best users I have are now comfortable running Windows and making some tweaks, things like video resolution changes and other such tidbits. In a network the size of ours, those users are heavily relied on to help nearby users with easy-to-solve problems, leaving LAN admin and desktop support to handle more involved issues. Most users still fall into the category of "if it's not obvious and easy, I can't find it or do it."

Another reason we stay with Windows is for messaging solutions such as Exchange. Entourage on the Mac doesn't do nearly as good a job interfacing with an Exchange server as Outlook does on the PC (although Entourage is much better in Office 2004 than earlier versions). Exchange is very convenient and streamlined for combining messaging and calendaring, and other solutions don't do as good a job or have as nice an interface (at least the ones I've seen).

Microsoft Office is available on the Mac, and Sun's OpenOffice is available on Linux. Both options seem to have very good compatibility with the ubiquitous Windows versions of Microsoft Office. I enjoy getting to work with Macs and Linux boxes, but at this point it just doesn't seem practical, on multiple levels, to migrate to another option.

David R. Bayer is LAN manager, Divisions of Hematology/ Oncology and Nephrology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Even with some level of dissatisfaction, though, the Microsoft Quilt concept continues to give it an advantage, says Jason Thompson, a consultant architect in Arlington, Va. "My network has three players; Cisco, Dell and Microsoft. All software is from Microsoft, so we know that it works well together. If we do have problems, we only need to call one place. For me to leave Microsoft, a single vendor would need to support database, e-mail, Web, etc., from a single, highly supported platform. IBM is the only vendor I currently know that can accomplish this, but [it isn't] competitive in price."

Another aspect of support working in Microsoft's favor is the army of IT pros trained on its software. "Businesses would not go to alternatives such as Linux or OpenOffice unless the support staff were readily available to resolve issues. Currently, Linux and Unix professionals are in short supply and thus command higher wages. Just look at the demise of Novell," says Allen Thomas, systems engineer with Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Md.

Given these factors, it's clear it will take more than just management buy-in, cost savings which may or may not appear and improved, across-the-board tech support to loosen the Microsoft desktop stranglehold. The products and platforms have to be comparable (or better) in quality. Are they?

Big Mac Attack
In the case of Apple, the answer is clearly yes. If Redmond reader response is indicative of the industry, the Mac has a clear client edge over Linux as a Windows alternative. Many readers hype their switch to the Mac, while almost no one mentions moving to Linux PCs.

Perhaps the Mac has an edge because it has the polish of an OS with two decades' worth of evolution, is backed by a commercial company and has solid application support, including an official and up-to-date version of Microsoft Office. And because there's less malware, troubleshooting and help desk tasks are less onerous.

Why I Ditched Windows

By Rob Hughes

I did a basic cost-benefit analysis when considering a migration, as my network was then mainly Windows, with one Linux box and two Solaris boxes for testing. It had reached the point where I was mostly running around trying to fix various problems with Windows, both at the server and on the client. I needed to add several boxes for a new project and looked at the cost of doing it on Windows vs. Linux, as what I needed could be done on either platform. I found that in that situation, with Linux, I could get by with two fewer systems [and decided to move to Linux]. Since the migration, I spend very little time doing administration on my network, and most of my time doing research. I'm using Linux, BSDs and Solaris as both client and server OSes.

Two of the main advantages of KOffice [the office software that runs on the KDE Linux desktop environment] and OpenOffice are Opendoc/XML compatibility and cross-platform support. KOffice doesn't currently run easily on Windows, but KDE can be compiled under cygwin if you're fairly patient (big package, long compile time). And there's a lot of talk of porting KDE/QT (QT being already available) to Windows when version 4 of both products are released.

XML, being text, is pretty easy to manipulate programmatically. Opendoc also doesn't use any binary "blobs" within the XML schema like Microsoft Office 2003 does, which makes trying to use Office 2003 files with anything other than Office nearly impossible.

Another advantage is that I can read and write most other file formats, including Microsoft formats, giving me good compatibility with whatever someone sends me. I find these tools offer really good performance and flexibility -- and, being open source software, integration/ extension possibilities are limited only by the amount of time and effort one is willing to put into a project. At the end of the day, what I'm talking about here is openness. Not just in the published sense (open standard format), but in the true sense of an Open Standard format.

Rob Hughes is an escalation engineer with a technology company.

But even with those advantages, the Mac hasn't made significant inroads into the Wintel space. That may be changing, however, with Apple's switch to Intel processors. The Intel machines could be cheaper in the long run (the early units have premium pricing), perhaps pushed by low-cost marketing powerhouse producers like Dell. Macs that could compete with PCs on the cost and speed side would certainly be a cause for concern in Microsoftland.

Another advantage Intel processors will provide, and which could prove significant, is the ability to run Windows alongside the Mac OS. "If the future generation Macs (the ones using Intel processors) can run Windows software effectively, I'd switch in a heartbeat," says Jerry Koch, chief technical officer for WebNow1 LLC. "I'm sick and tired of Microsoft getting rewarded for its failures, like selling anti-spyware software because its OS has so many holes."

David Cantrill, a London-based Redmond reader, echoes that sentiment. "What have I discovered in my time with a Mac? It works. No viruses, no spyware and consequently no AV software to constantly update. I can still do everything I did on my PC and don't need to worry that I'm going to lose all my information by having to reformat the thing. Microsoft better hope Vista creates a whole new ball of momentum, or this mag will be retitled Cupertino sometime in the next three years," says Cantrill.

Desktop Linux -- Untapped Potential
Linux PCs are much rougher around the edges than Macs, no doubt about it. They're still much more difficult to install and use than Windows and Macs, often lacking anything but the most basic instructions. That leaves a dedicated group of hard-core, tech-savvy consumers, hobbyists and geeks to tweak and improve it, just as they did with Altairs 30 years ago.

Market Share

Linux has 3 percent desktop market share and will have 6 percent two years from now (2008), IDC says. Meanwhile, the Mac is generally thought to have slightly less than 3 percent market share.

But these pioneers are small in number, and on the corporate side, things are even worse. The few widespread adoptions are almost all among the Linux vendors themselves -- companies like IBM, which has more than 10,000 desktops running Linux. Peruse the Red Hat Web site, and you'll find 38 case studies, only two of which mention Linux desktops to any degree.

One bright spot, which could portend a tipping point, is in a market not yet dominated by Microsoft, or any other vendor for that matter: those who are too poor to even have considered a computer in the past. Nicholas Negroponte, of the MIT Media Lab, and his team have designed Linux laptops for the third world. For about $100 the machines come with a range of applications, 1GB RAM, peer-to-peer capabilities and wireless connectivity. Negroponte hopes that as many as 150 million units will be built in the next two years.

That's a lofty goal; but even if only a tenth of those get built, it still means 15 million Linux laptops will be in use. At that price, and with that kind of base, it becomes an interesting and proven proposition for lots more folks. Add some polish and some apps and you may just have a popular, new portable platform.

Top Tipping Points
  • A unified or dominant Linux client – such a client could have better driver and apps support
  • Intel-based Macintoshes – cheaper Macs running XP or Vista alongside Mac OS X could appeal to Windows shops
  • Third-world $99 Linux laptops – a huge base of Linux clients could jumpstart the apps markets
  • Dell selling Macs or solid, reliable and usable Linux PCs – a trusted low-cost supplier could give these machines corporate cachet
  • A bug-laden, insecure Vista – if Vista is a huge pain to secure, and requires loads of training, an alternative may not be viewed as altogether disruptive
  • A bug-laden, insecure Internet Explorer – if IE7 is no better than today’s browser, corporations could move in droves to Firefox, which already has about 10 percent market share
  • Major change in Office 12 causes disruption – interface and file formats (if native XML is really supported, are file formats still a lever?) -- like with Vista, the Office suite, code-named Office "12," could be as tough to move to as Office rivals
  • Dramatically improved Windows interoperability with Linux or the Mac – if Linux and the Mac become a seamless part of the Microsoft Quilt, IT objections will be answered
  • Brand new computing paradigm/architecture – just as the PC killed off the Apple II, a compelling new approach could sweep away legacy Windows and Office
  • Web services take over and bring back the Network Computer – if Web services become dominant, fat client PCs won’t be necessary
  • Open Source becomes a broad corporate mandate – if open source offers a compelling ROI, CEOs could mandate a move away from Microsoft

Whither Office?
If Windows on the desktop could be toppled, what about Kong's other arm -- Microsoft Office? Much as with desktop Linux, the potential is there, but the open source competition still has a way to go.

One user tried OpenOffice, but the performance simply wasn't there. "Upon reading benchmarks of the new StarOffice/OpenOffice versions that have up to 10 times the processing overhead compared to the Microsoft products we already license, there's just no way to justify consideration in a shared environment," says Sidney McCoy.

On the other hand, critics claim that Office suffers serious feature bloat, perhaps providing an opening. "I would absolutely move away from Office and XP for the majority of my users, if I could have a solid desktop and office suite with similar core functionality and interactions as XP and Office. That seems to be a rather broad stroke until you evaluate what "core functionality and interactions" really means to a given set of users, and the respective business processes. In most cases, Office and XP are overkill in function and cost," says Yusuf F. Abdalhakim, of Abdalhakim & Associates, an IT consultant with 20-plus years of experience.

In addition to the footprint, interoperability is another potential tipping point away from Microsoft. OpenOffice cracked the door open for the OpenDocument file format, an XML format derived from StarOffice that may be able to break Microsoft's deathgrip on productivity file formats. If these file formats become open, Office suddenly becomes less necessary.

In Microsoft’s Corner: Keeping Windows Large and in Charge
  • The Microsoft Quilt – XP and Office aren’t standalone but work closely with other Microsoft tools
  • The sheer number of applications – no one can match the volume of Windows programs
  • Custom Corporate Client Code – internal applications developers have written billions of lines of Windows code that would have to be re-crafted
  • Active Directory – the standard corporate directory works best with Microsoft tools
  • Exchange – Exchange works with Outlook, which works with Office, which works with XP ...
  • Office training – as tough as it can be to use, no program has more training muscle behind it than Office
  • Office file formats – many shops use Office just so they can share files with partners
  • OEM lock-in – PC vendors unanimously support Windows, not Linux or the Mac
  • Price/Performance – competition has pushed PC prices to an all-time low
  • The Groove factor – Ray Ozzie, one of three CTOs, is planning to bring rich collaboration technologies to the Office suite, code-named Office “12,” and Vista

Microsoft has responded by proposing its own XML-based format others can support, but that Redmond ultimately controls. That makes it less appealing to many, and, ironically, may lead to a move away from Office. "The XML stuff and the Open format specification of OpenDocument is extremely relevant for any organization that considers control over its data a priority, rather than giving that control to a single vendor via proprietary formats and forced upgrades in order to maintain supported status," says Rob Hughes, an escalation engineer with a technology company. "The fully documented nature of OpenDoc would also play on the enterprise development side, as things like integration with various sorts of database back-ends and so forth are all greatly eased."

Cool Tool

Code Weavers has a tool, called Crossover Office, which is a version of WINE that lets Linux run key Windows apps. WINE essentially implements the Windows API set on Linux.

From Hunter to Hunted
There's no doubt that right now, Microsoft is sitting pretty. But there's accumulating evidence that its place on the perch could be getting more precarious. In fact, according to author Tony Bove, who's written a book on how to swear off of Microsoft completely (see "Is Microsoft Losing Its Grip?" above), the possible seeds of its demise can paradoxically be found in its overwhelming success.

"Microsoft is essentially held back by its monopoly and the complexity of its products, and can't innovate fast enough without hurting its existing business," Bove says. "That wasn't always the case -- in the early days of the monopoly, Microsoft was invincible. There was so much activity on so many fronts that the company was a moving target. Now … the company has become a big fat target."

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