Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Era of Paying for Operating Systems is officially over redux


I said it before ... anyone still want to dispute it now that Microsoft and Yahoo are planning a search/advertising merger?

For 30 years or so, operating systems and office applications were Microsoft's bread and butter. That era has ended. It may not seem like it has, but it has.

Really.

If you think otherwise, allow me to gently suggest that you are in much the same position as a man toodling down the street in a Brougham, circa 1903, staring uncomprehendingly at one of Henry Ford's new Model A "horseless carriages" passing you on the street and assuming that the thing represents a passing fad.

Windows 7 may make it off the launching pad, but it lost its shot at dominance the minute Google announced the free Chrome OS. Even if Microsoft grills up a fine Porterhouse steak of an OS (unlikely), it won't sell many of them at $200 a pop when Google is giving away reasonably good cheeseburgers. Yes, I just shifted metaphors on you. Sue me.

There's still a future in apps, but not in selling CD-ROMs and licenses that a company has to pay an IT team to run around installing. The apps of the future will run in your browser. If they're not free, then the licenses will come with URLs and logins, not CDs. Microsoft is already migrating its office suite to "the cloud."

Google has forced the issue, and Microsoft, with the launch of Bing and the merger with Yahoo, has conceded: The future is in offering search services and selling ads, and maybe selling access to the best apps. The OS is something they'll give away (with a browser that defaults to their search engines and has their app offerings prominently bookmarked, of course).

The OS won't be the steak. It won't even be the cheeseburger. It will be the bowl of pretzels they put out on the bar to make you thirsty so you buy beer.

At some not too distant future point, I suspect we may even see the computers themselves being given away, or at least heavily subsidized -- configured, of course, to make it difficult for the user to defect from the sponsor's OS/browser/search/apps suite, or perhaps tied to a contract with the sponsor for Internet access (that's already being done with hand-held devices and 3G networks, isn't it?).

If all of this sounds outlandish and unlikely, well, a lot of other things sounded unlikely and outlandish right before they happened, too. A computer that would fit on a desktop, for example. Or a worldwide network that that desktop computer could access all kinds of cool stuff (cough ... porn ... cough) through, for another. Or a phone that would fit in your pocket and work virtually anywhere, no cord. They're all here now, and they're all a lot cheaper than they were when they first arrived. Things change, and what's changing right now is the role of the OS.

Like all my predictive stuff, this piece won't disappear. Come back in two or three years to mock me if I'm wrong. More likely, I'm right but you'll forget I told you so.

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