Bus. Std: Microsoft faces a Serious Challenge Again

My latest column in Business Standard:

Over the previous two columns, we discussed the emerging technologies in the area of search. While these ideas are helping provide us with a better window to the information web, there are also changes (and challenges) afoot on the desktop front with the search also underway for a new interface to the world of content and applications. Even as Microsoft has dominated the desktop since the advent of personal computing over two decades ago, it faces its second serious challenge in the past decade.

The first challenge came in the form of Netscape and the web browser. During the early days of the commercial Internet around 1995-96, it was believed that the browser could become the de facto interface for everything. Sensing the threat, Microsoft responded by integrating Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system and effectively neutralising the Netscape threat. Over the past few years, there has been little innovation on the browser front as Explorer commanded a virtual monopoly on the desktop.

Now, Netscapes ghost is making a comeback. Loopholes in Internet Explorer raised security concerns and created an opportunity for Mozilla and its Firefox variant. As it turns out, Mozilla emerged from Netscapes decision to open-source its browser work in the late 1990s. There is increasing speculation that Google could be working on a browser built around Mozilla to create an alternate desktop platform and target Microsofts monopoly.

The New York Post wrote recently in a story that looked at some of the high-profile hires that Google had made: Google appears to be planning to launch its own Web browser and other software products to challenge Microsoft The broader concept Google is pursuing is similar to the network computer envisioned by Oracle chief Larry Ellison during a speech in 1995The idea is that companies or consumers could buy a machine that costs only about $200, or less, but that has very little hard drive space and almost no software. Instead, users would access a network through a browser and access all their programs and data there.

News.com added: Google has also been rumored to be working on a thin-client operating system that would compete with Microsoft in areas beyond search. Techies have even discussed the idea of Google becoming a file storage system.

A commentary on ZDNet provided additional perspective: [Googles] strengths are data management, Web applications, targeted advertising and brand, and its most pressing need is to lock users in. It may well be the world’s favorite search engine but if someone else comes along tomorrow with a better way, then we’ll switch overnight. We’re fickle that way. What Google must do is get itself on the desktop. The obvious Google-shaped hole is local searching, where Microsoft has a history of conspicuous failure. A browser plug-in that amalgamated general file management with knowledge of Outlook, multimedia data types and online searching would be tempting indeed. Add extra features such as integrated email, instant messaging, automated backup to a remote storage facility and so on, and it gets very interesting. That would need considerable browser smarts, but would extend the Google brand right into the heart of the unconquered desktop where it would stick like glue It would also remove one of the big barriers that stops people moving from Windows to open source. If all your important data has been painlessly stored on Google’s farm and there’s a neat, powerful Java browser-based management tool to retrieve it, you can skip from OS to OS without breaking into a sweat.

What all this adds up to is a different world of computing one that merges local computing and the Web seamlessly. This is a world of service-based computing. At the keynote address of DemoMobile 2004, Chris Shipley, the conference producer, said: Service-based computing delivers applications and data from a managed computing platform to a relatively simple end device the point of interaction with the data. Service-based computing puts the onus of managing the computing environment on the service provider, and liberates the end-user to engage with the information. Service-based computing will drive elegance into application and device design. Service-based computing not only enables, but requires, simplicity and reliability in end-point devices, no matter if they are a cell phone or a desktop PC. Indeed, service-based computing is bigger than todays mobile and wireless market. It is broadly encompassing of most enterprise, small business, individual, and convergent consumer computing. Service-based computing is the future model for nearly-all computing and communications.

As we peer into the crystal ball of tomorrow, the future starts becoming apparent: a variety of devices accessing centralised service-driven platforms. Think of the backend as a grid providing computing as a utility. The devices are thin devices delivering virtual desktops and encompassing not just the web browser, but also a capability to deliver rich client applications and rich media. This is a world that will be created first among the next users of computing in emerging markets like India.

Techs future is ready to be played out with us as the central participants. The communications revolution has delivered the worlds cheapest telephony services to India. Can we do something similar in the world of computing?

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.