It's June 2008, and it's not a good time to be a Microsoft shareholder or employee. The computing industry is changing very, very quickly, creating new opportunities and killing once-prosperous markets. In this short article, I will outline these changes in relation to free software and Microsoft. If you can think of more changes, or if you don't agree with some of my forecasts, please let me know!
Regardless of how much hype Microsoft creates, the world still runs on Unix--and most of those servers are GNU/Linux machines. Your Netgear router has Linux in it. Your Internet provider is very likely to be running on GNU/Linux servers. So is your office. It's a little hard to come by hard numbers, because anybody can download CentOS and deploy a top-class server in minutes. Each GNU/Linux server has stolen market share to the proprietary, expensive Windows NT--and Microsoft is immensely unlikely to get that market back.
Windows Mobile has had a very hard life penetrating the mobile market; today, in 2008, Windows Mobile is still tottering. The only really usable device I've seen using it was one made by HTC: Andrea was showing it to me, pointing out that without HTC's proprietary UI extensions (which are very iPhone-ish), HTC PDAs would be mobile nightmares. I am holding my breath, waiting for the HTC Dream to be released: that's an Android-based PDA which should make the iPhone feel like a text-based terminal. And yes, Android is based on Linux. I suspect that once people start noticing Android-based devices (and they will, once HTC Dream comes out), the Windows Mobile market will shrink even further.
Bill Gates had a dream: a PC (with Windows installed) on everybody's desk. Instead, the computing world is taking a different turn: computers are smaller and smaller, and people are getting used to carrying them around. A lot. In 2008, laptop sales are supposed to overtake PC sales. This has changed the rules in several ways: laptops are generally slower, and putting Vista on most laptops today is like putting an elephant on a child's chair: it will crash under the elephant's weight. Also, laptops tend not to be used as gaming systems, but as internet terminals. Finally, laptops are still seen as "secondary machines", which complement people's desktop computers.
So, more and more people today are installing GNU/Linux (specifically, Ubuntu) on their laptops: it doesn't matter if you can't play many games on it, it's much much faster, it doesn't get attacked by viruses and Trojans every other minute, it's free, and well, it's a good idea to install it even just to have a look at it. Dell offering GNU/Linux laptops (and then expanding the product line) made a huge difference to the GNU/Linux market. Others will soon follow suite.
I am writing this article using an EeePC (with Ubuntu Netbook Remix installed on it). Asus has created a new class of devices, the "ultra-portable" ones (or Netbooks, or sub-notebooks...). They are tiny low-cost machines that can be used to browse the web, write letters, and answer emails (or run magazines, which is what I do with mine). This market is big enough to convince Microsoft to resuscitate support for Windows XP /just for this very class of devices/. The problem stays: paying $55 for an OEM license of Windows XP is absurd if the computer itself costs $300. This is probably why the Asus EeePC came with GNU/Linux preinstalled. Unfortunately, it was an ugly fork of Xandros, but it was GNU/Linux nevertheless.
Other hardware makers now want a slice of this appealing cake. Canonical, the maker of Ubuntu, made sure that those makers' distro of choice is Ubuntu, with its promising Ubuntu Netbook Remix project.
To sum up, the world in 2 years (2010) has a chance of being very different to what it's like today. People's phones/PDAs will run Android. Their sub-laptops/netbooks/sub-notebooks will run Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Their gaming machine of choice will be a Playstation or a Nintendo one (hopefully, Microsoft will run out of money to pour into the XBox). Their PCs will be collecting dust on a glorious desk, turned off for weeks on end. Their full-size laptops (if they have one) will run Vista or Ubuntu. They will be able to exchange ODF documents with their office and their friends, and will be using OpenOffice and Firefox.
Microsoft has very few weapons to fight this: Windows XP for sub-notebooks will be a joke, compared to a fully-featured Ubuntu Netbook Remix (which comes with OpenOffice); Windows Mobile will put them to shame when compared to Android, which will eat up the already small share Windows Mobile has managed to acquire in 11 years of existence; and while there might well be a computer on every desk, well, it will be the "old" computer, hardly ever turned on. Maybe for the kids to play with, and strictly not connected to the internet. So, it's going to be interesting. Let's just watch out for those silly patent laws which might turn this dream future into a small nightmare.