Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What Does The Next Three Years Look Like For The Computer Industry?

I just rooted my Android cell phone a few days ago and have been pleasantly surprised by the plethora of freely available Android apps. Just what is there that I cannot do on my little LG AS740 Axis and my unlimited NTelos wireless service? And the thought immediately arrested me. Forget the onslaught of Apple's increasing popularity over the years. The days of Microsoft's worldwide sovereignty are over.

The Personal Computer (in all its incarnations, starting with the original clunky IBM desktop PC down to the most recent netbooks) has run through its career much like a pop artist. IBM begat the consumer industry in the early 80s and lost its parental control over it during the Personal Computer's teenage years. The Microsoft promotions machine then quickly made the PC rise to stardom only to bring its illustrious career to that of just a dated icon struggling to maintain its rep. Kind of like Madonna.

Who speaks well of Microsoft? It seems nowadays everyone gets a kick out of throwing tomatoes at the company. What we are now witnessing is a flurry of new talent and ideas. Nothing like you've ever seen or heard. Contending for the top spot as prime computing technology in your home and at work are a whirlwind of amazingly smart cell phones and tablets. There's iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Nook, the Java phone, Kindle, Android...you name it. Laptop computers are hanging in there because there's stuff these tiny phones and tablets are just not well suited for [yet], but desktop PCs are now more of a specialty item for people with special needs (heavy duty PC gamers and certain media professionals being among them). Even then, smaller, external USB hardware is beginning to replace the traditional need for internal slots on a PC. The underlying hardware is also radically different from that of the past and due to its tinier circuitry and increasingly lower price, it is often best replaced rather than repaired. The general consumer and most business people today will opt for these smaller footprints (the laptop, notebook, netbook, or the tablet), and in every case a smart cell phone that can integrate with their hardware is indispensable. Apple Computer, Inc. foresaw that in 2007 when it removed the word "Computer" from its name and kept it as just Apple Inc.

But what's most revolutionary right now is the fundamental shift in operating environments occurring in the marketplace. Gone are the days of Microsoft's dominating presence as the platform of choice for consumer software and graphics; Java-based equipment can now play videos and run games that are often just as flashy as Windows'. Apple has also greatly increased in popularity with the release of the new iPhone and iPad, and has made its already strong media platform even more attractive. And gone are the days of Microsoft's monopoly on office software! You can now open Word documents and Excel spreadsheets in a growing list of compatible software products running on any of these alternative platforms. OpenOffice and ThinkFree Office are both feature-rich competing products that will do everything the Microsoft Office suite does and more (for FREE!), will run on an Android phone or a Mac, and yet retain compatibility with Microsoft's industry-standard document formats. What's Microsoft to do?

The new contenders vying for Microsoft's crown are as diverse as they are versatile. And they're menacingly popular. Why? Because they break with tradition, and they break the yoke of Microsoft's market share. It's all in the same vein as the social unrest that has captivated this generation. Look at the political shifts happening internationally and how social media has fueled them. It's the GNU era. Open source. Free for all. Apple has managed to keep that rebel flair since its inception--never quite taking lead, but probably better off for not doing it. Now, for the first time in decades, a strong third contender has made its presence felt in the industry: Google Android phones have swallowed up almost a 50% market share of today's cell phone operating systems. You can already buy Android tablets and netbooks and completely bypass Microsoft's and Apple's longstanding presence in the market if you're a new buyer shopping at Best Buy.

I could say the stage has been set for a fierce competition in the next three years to determine which will be the hardware footprint of choice, but we all know smaller is better and at the end of those three years the cell phone and tablet will win.  I could predict that whoever takes the lead in the cell phone operating systems market will eventually rule over or determine the fate of the laptop and desktop software/hardware market...but who am I kidding? We all know this generation is sick of big bullies and will destabilize any company trying to become king. What I really think will happen in the next three years is that we will see an on-going tolerance of diversity in operating systems platforms. Smaller and more inter-operable electronics will marginalize the desktop PC market. Open source will continue to flourish. Apple's iOS will continue to gain popularity. But if any of these rising companies are smart, they will keep their throttle at a safe pace. Microsoft's last card to play in this era is Windows 8. Botching up another release as it happened with Vista is not an option. And the best strategy for Microsoft right now is to take a hint from the career of other giants. Either Microsoft gets Windows an effective crowd-pleasing makeover that can ride out the storms of this generation's unrest, or this new generation might forcefully pull it off-stage in a less-than-desirable abrupt ending.

Now, whether Madonna can keep up with this generation is another story.

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