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Hoist with its own petard

Hoist with its own petard

With a belief that its dominance was unshakeable, Microsoft has succeeded in forcing CIOs to ask a question that they had never seriously contemplated before

For the past six months I have been where angels fear to tread. As someone utterly dependent on my computer I have been living on the precipice of peril. My life has been in my hands. I have been taking risks of which Steve Fossett can only dream. I have been unprotected. I was on my own. You see, ladies and gentlemen, unbeknown to me but my Office application has been unsupported since February. How have I managed to survive all this time? I became aware of this in the furore created by Software Assurance. This has been a fascinating time in IT as CIOs and the leading software vendor indulge in a game of high-stakes poker. Most New Zealand CIOs I met in July acknowledged that they had acquired versions of alternative office suites and were undertaking a functionality comparison. There was also interest in running a Linux trial. In fact, one prominent company had christened the Linux exercise “Project No” because it saw no way it could ever consider replacing Windows. Unfortunately, the harder it tried to prove this, the more it became apparent that Linux could very well be an operating system it should use.

For me this has been a classic example of where another IT supplier has been hoist with its own petard. With a belief that its dominance was unshakeable, Microsoft has succeeded in forcing CIOs to ask a question that they had never seriously contemplated before. For much of the past 10 years running Windows and Office was a no-brainer for most organisations. Now, at a time when the IT budget is being questioned like never before, CIOs are starting to question whether there is an alternative.

What really did Microsoft expect CIOs to do? Do they go to the board and ask for more funds for software licences when they know that this will deliver marginal business value? If they do so in the current business climate they run a serious risk of damaging their credibility. Alternatively, they could free funds by reducing other IT projects. However, with many IT budgets already experiencing cutbacks this will hurt other sectors of the business that may feel existing and important IT projects are not being adequately supported.

In the end I found something of a common consensus among CIOs on how they will address this issue. People distinguished between server licences and desktop ones. There was a view that uptime and reliability were much more critical on the server. As such, since Software Assurance would ensure a steady stream of patches for server operating systems, most saw it was important in this environment. On the other hand, most thought the functionality and robustness of the desktop was sufficient to get by without it.

Microsoft may respond to this by making future versions of Office incompatible with older versions. Organisations wanting to maintain a standard desktop environment for ease of document exchange and support efficiencies may find that the only way they can do this is to upgrade everyone to the latest Office version. However, my view is that such a strategy would open the door to alternative desktop suites. Instead, I think Microsoft should focus on making a desktop operating system that turns on as quickly as a television set. That would save many users much time and frustration.

It will be interesting to see what does happen over the next couple of years. In my time in the IT industry I have seen the pre-eminent minicomputer supplier (Digital) become merged into oblivion. Wang, which had the box seat in the office automation market for much of the 1980s, slowly disappeared over the 1990s. I wonder where Microsoft will be in the next 10 years.

Peter Hind is a consultant for IDC and assists the Australian Computer Society in policy developments. He also heads the InTEP CIO gatherings in New Zealand and Australia. You can reach him at phind@idc.com.

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